Tuesday 14 July 2009

Can there really be a military victory in Afghanistan?

The coverage of the war in Afghanistan has rarely been so high in the last week or so following the recent deaths of British soldiers. More British troops have now died in Afghanistan than in Iraq and unsurprisingly people are questioning the purpose of this conflict and whether our troops have the necessary resources to successfully fight this war.

The problem with Afghanistan is that it’s played second fiddle to the war in Iraq for too long. Few people really understand why British troops are fighting, and the government has failed to explain adequately what they're trying to achieve. Nor have they provided enough evidence on how our forces are progressing in their overall aims.

After the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001 US, British and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan with the aim of overthrowing the Taliban regime which had close links and had harboured a number of Al Qaeda terrorists.

It was argued that by overthrowing the Taliban and introducing a democratic government this would be major victory in the War on Terror which would prove to be vital in ensuring our future security against any further terrorist attacks.

This all made perfect sense at the time, and I still think it makes sense now, but seven and half years later we’re still fighting against the Taliban who haven’t disappeared. We’re now left wondering to ourselves are we actually achieving anything!

With so many British soldiers dying in recent weeks, the question of what are we doing over there has again risen to the top of the news agenda. This same thought occurred to me at the end of last year.

There was a British soldier who was killed just before Christmas 2008. His name was Robert Deering, he was in the same year as me at school back in my hometown of Birmingham.

He wasn’t a close friend of mine, in fact I don’t think I ever spoke to him during my time at school, but I always knew who he was, and it was understandably quite a shock when I saw his picture on the front page of the Birmingham Mail newspaper reporting that he’d been killed.

It’s not a particularly nice feeling to discover that someone you knew, who grew up in the same area as you, was now dead. Killed fighting for his country in war that you don’t really understand.

My immediate reaction was; what did he actually die for? What a waste of a life!

Whenever I speak to people about Afghanistan, I never meet anyone who believes that this war can be won. People always give examples of previous military failures by other foreign powers.

The history books speak for themselves though, as Afghanistan is like a graveyard for foreign armies stretching back over the last 2500 years; from the likes of Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British in the 19th Century and more recently the Soviet Union in the 1980s .

What many people don’t realise, and I say this as someone who’s certainly no expert is that Afghan society is incredibly complex and difficult for many of us in the West to even understand. The idea that what can come along and impose a fully functioning Western style democracy on the country is too ambitious and unrealistic.

The country from what I can gather is made up a number of different ethnic groups and tribes controlled by various warlords. Alliances and rivalries between different groups are constantly changing.

The geography of the country makes it incredibly difficult for foreign armies to be in complete control of many areas. We’re currently hearing that there needs to be more troops deployed but during the 1980s the Soviet's had 125,000 troops in Afghanistan and were still defeated. American, British, and NATO troops combined have just under 100,000!

Following the Soviets withdrawal it was estimated in later assessments that a figure closer to 500,000 troops would have been needed for an decisive victory. Even with such numbers available the terrain of the country make any campaign a logistical nightmare in terms of supplies and communication lines for troops.

When you take this into consideration it makes an outright military win seem even more remote. In October of last year the Times quoted Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, one of the most senior military commanders in Afghanistan, as saying the war against the Taliban could not be won.

I’m beginning to think he's right, and we perhaps need to look at some sort of diplomatic political settlement to bring things to an end. The Taliban seem far too entrenched in Afghan society for US or British troops to finish them off completely.

Although I appreciate that the situation in Afghanistan and also Pakistan is quite complex and difficult to understand, it’s important for the government to constantly try and explain and demonstrate why it’s so vital that British troops are out there. It would be good to have more progress reports on what’s being achieved and objectives that the army is working towards.

In the last year or so, the most I've learnt about the conflict has come from Ross Kemp's Sky One series, in which he follows British troops in action and practically becomes a fully fledged soldier himself. Not bad for a former soap star!

I think the government along with their US counterparts, need to explain again what our objectives are, but these objectives have to be realistic and achievable. This is probably where we went wrong to begin with, by trying to be too ambitious in our aims.

We may have to do a deal with the Taliban no matter how unpleasant it might seem, but if that is a realistic requirement for bringing this war to an end then our government needs to be honest enough to admit this.

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