Matt Cavanagh

Operation amnesia

Britain’s failings in Afghanistan have as much to do with short memories as shortages of troops

Britain’s failings in Afghanistan have as much to do with short memories as shortages of troops

When Liam Fox visited Afghanistan in January, he was, like the defence secretaries before him, keen to tell the story of a country moving towards peace and stability. So he stopped by the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, seen as one of the most orderly and peaceful in the country. At least, that is how it was seen until last Friday, when a mob stormed a United Nations compound and murdered seven unarmed staff — apparently to avenge a Koran-burning in Florida.

A year after America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, there are dispiritingly few signs of progress. President Karzai recently named seven areas where security would be handed over to Afghan control, and until now Mazar-i-Sharif was an obvious candidate for the list. More surprising was the choice of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, where the vast majority of British troops have been fighting for the past five years. In Helmand, the insurgency remains strong and the Afghan state has always been weak. But the transition process is as much about symbolism as substance. It is designed to satisfy the desperate search for a credible ‘metric of progress’ even as violence remains stubbornly high. Measures of territory occupied and enemy ‘body count’ are rightly rejected as counterproductive, and more detailed assessments of the Afghan state, of its army, police, or local governors, are far from reassuring.

When Karzai published the list, the BBC took the bait and spoke of progress in Lashkar Gar. To illustrate this it showed an open-air concert, attended by thousands of Afghans. Such an event would have been ‘unthinkable’, it said, in previous years. In fact, a similar event took place in May 2008 — and then, too, it was seized on as evidence of progress.

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