Thursday, February 12, 2009

Afghanistan: Forcing the issue in a war without end -

By Kevin Maguire

Afghanistan is a war that Britain may be unable to win but cannot afford to lose.

Helmand Province is deadly, the bravery of the armed forces humbling.

During my four-day visit the squaddies on the front line told me that Ross Kemp is a hero with Our Boys for telling it like it is on Sky One.

The death toll’s creeping remorselessly nearer 150 and then, presumably, upwards to 200 and, possibly, higher.

One marine told me the fear of patrols and convoys is no longer a Taliban armed with an AK-47 but mines and booby traps.

The Taliban’s failure before Christmas to retake Musa Qala saw a fanatical and resourceful enemy switch tactics.

The steady flow of amputees flown home to Britain for treatment, and a life changed for ever, is grim testimony to that threat.

Defence Minister Kevan Jones didn’t hide from troops that Britain’s in it for the long-term during the trip.

A rapidly expanding Camp Bastion and a Kandahar airport already rivalling Gatwick in size are proof of the growing commitment.

Three hundred extra UK service personnel will counter the improvised explosive devices or IEDs. Bombs hidden in plastic jerry cans and metal pressure cookers have been detonated by kite twine pulled by Taliban who ironically banned kite flying.

President Obama is sending as many as 30,000 reinforcements and a US marine four-star general with a pearl-handled revolver, James F Amos was also out there discussing the deployment with British counterparts.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband candidly conceded the Taliban’s engineered a “strategic stalemate” in Afghanistan. Western confidence in President Hamid Karzai, seen to be failing to tackle endemic corruption, is waning.

Afghans don’t want the Taliban’s return, yet a dip in support for foreign troops is evidence of a war-weariness fuelled by botched Nato air strikes.

Encouraging signs can be detected in areas such as Lashkar Gah and Garmsir where security’s getting better not worse. Aid workers now toil alongside the military to win hearts, minds and stomachs. Helmand’s governor Gulab Mangal is considered a force for good.

The retrained Afghan National Army shows signs of professionalism, though the police less so while the ill-equipped border force is still a basket case.

The retreat from Iraq enables Britain and the US to focus on Afghanistan where the 9/11 al-Qaeda link avoids the controversy of illusory weapons of mass destruction.

Dirt poor Afghanistan will never be Switzerland and a displaced al-Qaeda has moved bases a few hundred miles to Pakistan’s lawless badlands.

Morale of British forces is surprisingly high (as is the humour) but Ministers need to explain why lives are risked and lost to sustain backing for a conflict without a seeming end.

The stated reason for the 2001 invasion was to punish al-Qaeda and topple a theocratic, evil Taliban that oppressed women and ruled mercilessly.

That expanded to eradicating poppy crops responsible for more than half the heroin sold in the west.

As the body bags and casualties continue to come home, however, the case will be lost unless it’s made forcefully.

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