Adam Holloway says that Britain’s strategy in Afghanistan is misconceived. Nato’s military presence should be reduced and the battle for hearts and minds fought more imaginatively

They do not like the F-word in Whitehall, but failure stares us in the face in southern Afghanistan. For three years we have deluded ourselves that we can defeat the insurgency in the Pashtun tribal belt through our much talked-about plan for a ‘comprehensive approach’ — security, governance and development. But in Helmand province and across the Pashtun lands, violence is greatly increased, governance is distinctly patchy and development is barely noticeable.

The government tells us that we are there to stop it becoming a failed state in which our enemies can regroup. Around 50,000 Western soldiers would drive away the Taleban, al-Qa’eda and their friends. But there are other failed states in the world, other areas where extremists are organising against us. Apart from the experience of 11 September 2001, Afghanistan is no more special than the tribal areas of Pakistan or several other places. Surely we can keep tabs on al-Qa’eda without the deployment of tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of lives and billions of dollars? It is not a case of either this, or nothing.

Success depends entirely on the ordinary Afghan. Before the arrival of our forces in strength in the south in the summer of 2006, I visited Afghans independently in the provincial capital of Helmand. ‘If the British bring security and reconstruction, they are welcome here. But if they don’t bring them, then they should leave.’ A year later — after high levels of violence and tiny amounts of reconstruction — I sat nervously with a group of young Helmandis: ‘The British tell us that we have security and reconstruction — but where is it? They should show us, not always just tell us.’

The government points to huge spending. Unfortunately, the Department for International Development is mainly pushing this money into corrupt Kabul government ministries, not into the provinces. This would be all right if we had time — but we are losing the consent of ordinary Afghans in the villages by not pulling projects into Helmand that would support the valiant efforts of our young men and women in dealing with the insurgency. Worryingly, our armed forces are completely dependent on other agencies for delivering long-term success. DfID exists not to support UK foreign policy, but the higher purpose of ‘international development and poverty reduction’. Working to military ends feels somehow a bit grubby. A friend turned down a DfID job in Helmand because she was told it would be too dangerous to leave the British base. It is easy to argue that this is the wrong organisation for this job.

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The military and diplomatic chains of command do bad news slowly, and seem to have an answer for everything. For example, on official visits to our bases in Helmand they tell us that you cannot have reconstruction until you have security. But out there beyond the barbed wire of our camps, one Afghan asked me, ‘If you can only have reconstruction when you have security, where is the reconstruction in this town? There is security here.’ Of course, ministers and the career-focused civil servants list the gazillion projects delivered. Unfortunately — whether this is a dozen or a thousand (much nearer the former) — it matters not unless the ordinary Afghan feels these projects have made a difference to his or her life. ‘Is it true that Britain has spent $1.6 billion on war here? Imagine what that would have done if they had given this to the people here for reconstruction.’

The UK is conflicted over opium production. Of course this must be tackled sometime soon. But for now we can either fight the growing insurgency or deal with the drugs — you can’t do both at the same time if you want to maintain the consent of the civilian population. Anyway, this problem is all about demand: you will only reduce supply if you provide alternative livelihoods — something we talk about a lot but don’t seem to be able to deliver.

Speak to almost anyone who has been in the country for more than the six-month tour, and they tell you a simple truth: you cannot impose security on the Pashtuns — this can only be built by them. Alarmingly, they explain that our activities make a stable Pakistan very much less likely in future. The Pashtuns live either side of the so-called Afghan–Pakistan border, but it is no border to their tribal lands. It is completely irrelevant to them. Someone not unknown to the payroll of the Pakistani intelligence services asks, ‘How can a Pakistani government look to the West, while it is the Western powers that are bombing Pashtuns? This makes Pakistan, as currently configured politically, unviable in the long term.’

Every six months the British brigade rotates. With each new brigade our ammunition consumption has doubled. The figures are staggering: 4.5 million small-arms rounds, 25,000 artillery rounds, 77,300 Apache helicopter gunship rounds — in just the first 14 months. One soldier described it as ‘a playground’. A brigadier said, ‘If you send in a hammer, it finds nails.’ Do we win hearts and minds by killing family members of those whose consent we need? This applies, particularly in the Pashtun patronage system, where if you kill one, you affect hundreds. Despite recent very positive efforts to refocus on the needs of the people rather than the Taleban, the very presence of foreign troops is a source of provocation to local tribesmen — who can then be exploited by the Taleban. ‘If you put a stick in a wasps’ nest, you get angry wasps.’

Nato countries are wobbling about ‘war fighting’, or even about being there at all. It is an expensive place in lives and money. Britain has lost nearly 100 dead, and getting on for £2 billion spent. Will even the UK be prepared to pay this price for decades to come?

We need a realistic long-term policy. Our current policy is only winning fire-fights, and is not defeating the mutating insurgency. Many people who have spent more than just a few months of their career in the country believe that answers lie elsewhere: Nato should cut numbers and spending to that which can be maintained for many years; the Taleban must be brought into the political process (though the big ‘if’ here would be the attitude of the US); we should intensively support the large areas of the country at relative peace as well as specific local areas that want nothing to do with the Taleban; we must give hands-on mentoring and support to an Afghan army and police force in containing the insurgency (even if this might not be pretty); we must direct money into infrastructure, education and poverty alleviation — and channel this through provincial government and local shuras; we need to accept that a large proportion of the Afghan population remains deeply traditional and resistant to change. Important aspirations, like women’s rights, will just have to wait until the reality on the ground catches up.

Two months ago Michael Semple of the EU mission was kicked out of Kabul for talking to the enemy. When I met him, red-bearded in traditional Afghan dress, I thought he was the housekeeper. He would drive round the country, drinking tea with his huge range of contacts, speaking fluent Pashtu. We need to reinforce, not expel, people like him. They play the Great Game in a new century. If you understand why a local militiaman puts on the Taleban’s black turban in the first place, you stand a better chance of understanding what you need to do to get him to take it off.

While it would be stomach-churning to talk to people killing British troops, not all Taleban fighters and commanders are irreconcilably opposed to talking about peace. ‘The Taleba
n’ is not some mediaeval force born out of nowhere. In large part they are the ordinary people of the south. They need to be brought into the political process, not bombed out of it. We can make clear that the slightest whiff of al-Qa’eda or its associates will lead to swift retribution. But it is crazy to think that groups of illiterate tribesmen are going to sit around in Helmand planning 9/11s. We are winning lots of battles we don’t need to fight, and they are helping us to lose the wider war.

What we have been doing in southern Afghanistan is a long-term liability for the UK: it has been ill-thought-out, counter-productive, and is a further driver of radicalisation — all of which contribute to our wider strategic failure.

The West has lost considerable goodwill through decisions made after 9/11: this continues to haemorrhage away across the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan. We need to win back that goodwill, fight the battles and do the things that really matter, and free up resources to deal with the very much more serious strategic threats facing us over the coming months and decades.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated