KABUL // When the British government joined hands with Washington and decided to take part in the invasion of Afghanistan, there was no mass opposition like there would be over Iraq. Police estimated that 20,000 anti-war protesters took to the streets of London on Oct 13 2001, six days after the bombing began. Their views were not taken seriously. With the wounds from September 11 still raw, there was a widespread belief that an armed response was needed. Politicians and the media largely approved of the decision to attack, so did most others. Few questions were ever asked.
The silence remained for years as Afghanistan became a country that was either ignored or portrayed as a success story. A brutal regime had been overthrown and a young democracy installed. The Taliban were history. Then in 2006 British troops were sent to the southern province of Helmand, having previously been stationed in relatively safe areas. John Reid, the defence minister at the time, said he would be "perfectly happy" if they did not have to fire a single shot.
Soon afterwards, the troops were bogged down in some of their worst combat since the Second World War. Now 120 have died and Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, is the main concern. In public at least, the message is cautiously optimistic. The British government is quick to talk about great sacrifices, long-term commitments and taking the fight to the terrorists. But privately, it seems, there is a growing understanding that a disaster is on the horizon.
Last week a French newspaper printed extracts from a leaked diplomatic cable that, if true, are both refreshingly honest and alarming. According to the article, Britain's ambassador to Kabul believes the mission is heading for the kind of bloody failure many of the demonstrators were predicting back in the autumn of 2001. Sherard Cowper-Coles, the ambassador, was quoted as saying: "The coalition presence - particularly the military presence - is part of the problem, not the solution." A surge in troops would have a "perverse effect", he is reported to have continued, because "it would identify us even more clearly as an occupying force and multiply the number of targets [for insurgents]".
The newspaper also reported Mr Cowper-Coles as saying the "security is worsening", and the Afghan government "has lost all credit". "Foreign forces are assuring the survival of a regime, which, without them, would quickly crumble," was another quote attributed to him. "In doing so, they are slowing down and complicating an eventual end to the crisis [incidentally, probably a dramatic one]." The quotes were taken from an alleged cable dated Sept 2 that was sent by a senior French diplomat. The British Embassy has claimed they are not the ambassador's views, but a denial was inevitable given the stark nature of the comments.
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time here would be hard pressed to disagree with the fundamentals of what was apparently said. In fact, it would be nice if such honesty were displayed in public. The usual statements that come from the British government are tedious, misleading and dangerous. People in the United Kingdom deserve better and, more importantly, so do Afghans. What is worrying, though, is the best-case scenario put forward by Mr Cowper-Coles. According to the report, this would involve "an acceptable dictator" ruling the country in five to 10 years, after the troops have left.
Britain has a long history of meddling in Afghanistan and it always ends badly. Yet when Tony Blair was prime minister he thought the latest war would somehow be different. As military action began on Oct 7 2001, he said the "cause is just" and "our determination in acting is total". His speech finished with a pledge that "we will not let up or rest until our objectives are met in full". Nearly seven years exactly to the day, the United Kingdom appears to be waking up to the fact that it is in too deep.
No one even knows what the aim of all this really is. At one time or another, capturing Osama bin Laden, destroying the Taliban, tackling the international drugs trade and building a democracy have all been promoted as reasons for the invasion and occupation. An acceptance of failure would be a breath of fresh air, but lessons must also be learnt. Rather than come up with solutions and ideas of their own, the British should listen to ordinary Afghans.
If they had done that from the start, when they were broadly welcomed here, the future would not look so bleak. firstname.lastname@example.org