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Tuesday, September 18, 2012 

The point of no return.

Have we at long last reached the point of no return on Afghanistan? It's a question worth asking, not because of the decision made by the Americans to put an immediate stop to joint patrols and training in the country as a result of the ever increasing number of "green on blue" attacks, or to put it in English, Afghans in uniform we're meant to be handing control over to killing their trainers, but due to how at long last a substantial number of our own MPs have been prepared to say what was previously confined only to comment pieces. Yesterday Denis MacShane, Paul Flynn, David Winnick and John Redwood all called either for a withdrawal from the country by Christmas, or as soon as humanly possible after that. While the latter three have been making similar arguments for some time, Denis MacShane is most certainly not one of the usual suspects, and was among the strongest supporters and then defenders of the Iraq war. Indeed, he was previously a supporter of the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank that has long supported the (forced) democratisation of the Middle East.

This isn't to ignore the fact that during yesterday's debate there were just as many MPs pushing the same old unbelievably out of date argument that our presence in Afghanistan is in some way protecting our national security, or that alternatively to leave now would somehow mean all those who have given their lives would have done so in vain, but it's clearly progress of a sort. Certainly, if that incessantly repeated two word answer given to the question of why we are still in the country has always been a nonsense, it never sounded quite as hollow as it did when Philip Hammond stated it yet again on Newsnight yesterday. How can our mission possibly be about national security when al-Qaida was cleared out of Afghanistan years ago, as even Hammond himself has admitted? As John Baron asked yesterday of the defence secretary, either our continuing presence is about nation building and the training up of Afghan forces, a mission which he himself said we shouldn't be putting lives at risk for, or it isn't. If it isn't about that, then we're expending blood and treasure for seemingly little other reason than our continuing obsession with riding on the coattails of America, a decision made for reasons of prestige rather than pragmatism.

The sad fact is that our contribution to America's post 9/11 wars are increasingly resented rather than welcomed. US commanders have long been dismissive about our role in Helmand, and the US military in general now tends to regard our unwarranted boasting and pride as exactly that, unwarranted. They've never really cared whether or not decisions made at the top have been relayed to all of their allies swiftly, yet it's surely come to something when our defence secretary, completely unaware of the change in strategy made we're told on Sunday stood up in parliament and told everyone that nothing had been altered. Recalled to the Commons today to alter his comments, Hammond was left claiming that in fact everything was just as it had been, only that now we would have to apply to the Americans for permission to carry on joint patrols below company level. Last week in an interview with the Graun Hammond was claiming that we could draw down our forces quicker, despite the "green on blue" "problems" as the work had been progressing so swimmingly; now they can't even go out together without asking the Americans first.

According to Richard Norton-Taylor, the military has long wanted to get out of Afghanistan and it's been the politicians holding them back. Alternatively, according to MacShane, the problem has been the "unelected military-Ministry of Defence nexus" which has been in control of policy. The reality is that both the military and the politicians have wanted to stay in Afghanistan; it was after all the military which while desperate to get out of Iraq wanted to do more in Helmand, and John "without a single shot" Reid was happy to oblige. Nothing has changed since then, regardless of the coming to power of the coalition. What else explains the second deployment of "Harry Wales" to the country, other than an attempt on behalf of the MoD to conjure up some good news and easily sellable propaganda? Harry's at relatively little risk in an Apache, but clearly you can never be too careful, as reports of Harry's bundling to a safe place in Camp Bastion when the Taliban carried out their most devastating attack in terms of destroyed equipment and buildings of the entire war on the base testifies. Hammond didn't even deny this was the case last night, merely that such treatment was given to all "VIPs" when at the camp. Not many VIPs are actually serving soldiers though, are they? Either Harry's a squaddie like all the rest and therefore should face the same risks as them, or he's the equivalent of a regimental goat. That the MoD can't decide which it is speaks volumes.

Clearly then, something has to break. Not a single politician can possibly claim with a straight face that our remaining in Afghanistan is achieving anything. It isn't improving our relationship with the United States, it isn't stopping al-Qaida from returning as al-Qaida central has effectively ceased to exist, it's helping to prop up a hideously corrupt government that is widely loathed by Afghans themselves, and those we're training are so mistrustful and bitter at how we see them that they're prepared to kill us, as not every recruit who's turned their gun on foreign forces can possibly be a Taliban infiltrator. If anything, the only thing we're providing is continuing target practice for the Taliban, and while they might not be as strong as they were in previous years, they're clearly capable of the odd spectacular assault when they feel like it. What we should be doing now is pushing ever more fiercely for some kind of accord between the Karzai government and the sections of the Taliban prepared to negotiate, even if that means making really unpleasant decisions about the carving out of autonomous regions within the country. Afghanistan has been at war now since 1978; just as the Russians admitted defeat, so must we.

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