x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The West's empty optimism is gone

Amid growing public alarm over casualties in Afghanistan, a UK parliamentary report has urged a re-evaluation of the country's strategy.

Three years ago John Reid, as British defence secretary, said of the mission to Afghanistan:
Three years ago John Reid, as British defence secretary, said of the mission to Afghanistan: " We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing a shot."

KABUL // Eight years after supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, Britain may finally be waking up to the realisation that it has sleepwalked into a dead end from which it must somehow escape. A UK parliamentary report has described the country's role here as being hamstrung by "mission creep" and "unrealistic planning at senior levels". The contrast to the blind acquiescence of 2001 could hardly be greater.

Back then the former prime minister, Tony Blair, pledged to "act with reason and resolve" as he confirmed his decision to stand with the United States. The Taliban regime soon collapsed and few doubted his words. That remained the case long into the future, despite widespread domestic outrage over the Iraq war that later followed. But in 2006 Britain expanded its role here and sent troops to Helmand province. The government had not even glimpsed what this might mean for the UK and Afghanistan.

John Reid, the defence minister at the time, famously said: "We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot." Last month was the worst on record for foreign troops since the war began, with 72 killed. The body count included 22 British soldiers and it is their sacrifice, more than anything else, that has caused the criticism at home. Amid scenes of flag-draped coffins being carried through a grey town in south-west England, politicians argued over what was going wrong. Most of their concerns revolved around equipment and an apparent shortage of helicopters.

Fearing that the public was tiring of seeing so many dead and wounded young men return from the battlefield, the government again attempted to make the case for indefinite involvement. David Miliband, the foreign minister, said it was about combating terrorism and safeguarding the streets of London. "Our ultimate objective in 2001 holds true for 2009," he declared. The reality, though, is that the aims of the occupation are not clear to the soldiers, the UK electorate or the people of Afghanistan. Mr Blair used to speak of spreading democracy and women's rights, as well as stopping the opium trade, boosting reconstruction and defeating the Taliban.

None of those targets have genuinely been achieved and, for the population of Helmand, life has become noticeably worse as a result of British intervention. Thousands of civilians have run from the violence that has torn apart the province. They are now refugees in their own homeland. Although the 321-page foreign affairs committee report does not call for anything like the withdrawal of troops or an end to the war, it does state that rethinking is needed on several fronts.

Day-to-day issues including the treatment of detainees by coalition forces, house raids and an over-reliance on air strikes are singled out for criticism, but the international community's broader mission is also examined. The old US administration of George W Bush is described as having "unilateralist tendencies" and accused of focusing too much on military goals. Attempts to reform the Afghan police have been "disappointingly slow" and "an effective formal justice system" has not been created. Britain's role in the counter-narcotics effort, meanwhile, is called "a poisoned chalice".

In one of its most striking paragraphs, the report says: "We conclude that the international effort in Afghanistan since 2001 has delivered much less than it promised and that its impact has been significantly diluted by the absence of a unified vision and strategy, grounded in the realities of Afghanistan's history, culture and politics." It adds that "avoidable mistakes, including knee-jerk responses, policy fragmentation and overlap, now make the task of stabilising the country considerably more difficult than might otherwise have been the case".

Where all this leads is not entirely obvious. There is a slow dawning of reality in London and Washington, but both governments stress they have no plans to pull out of Afghanistan any time soon. Britain's three main political parties appear to recognise at least some of the challenges ahead and the empty optimism of the past has thankfully gone. However, they are all committed to the Afghan war and do not have a definitive exit strategy for the 9,000-odd UK troops who are here.

Maybe the parliamentary report, and the growing public discourse, is another small step towards that. Anyone who has seen the bloodshed firsthand must hope so. In the meantime, the fighting continues. csands@thenational.ae