Matthew Parris

Quit Afghanistan, yes – but don’t declare victory

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Military commanders, announced last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph, ‘have warned the Prime Minister that Afghanistan’s future could be jeopardised with al-Qa’eda returning to the country if foreign troops are withdrawn too quickly’. What the newspaper calls ‘senior sources’ have been singing and I don’t doubt the burden of their song is as reported. The same briefing process is under way in the United States, where the Pentagon is letting it be known that President Obama’s promised troop withdrawal after the American ‘surge’ is premature; that the Taleban are by no means beaten; and that the Afghan security forces whom Nato-Isaf are training are not yet ready to take the insurgency on unaided.

Here and in America the military top brass are, of course, a lobby with interests of their own to promote; but British coalition leaders — and in particular the Prime Minister — should not discount these murmurings simply because they are predictable. The murmurings may well be right. David Cameron and Barack Obama know this. But on present plans they intend to go ahead with the withdrawal even if evidence does emerge that the Afghan insurgency is far from beaten and the situation by no means under control. Let us be blunt: our leaders no longer have any confidence that western goals in Afghanistan are achievable. They hope that humiliation before or after we depart is avoidable, but if it is unavoidable then too bad: in that case they mean to cut and run; and, having run, to stay away regardless.

And they are right. In most wars one side has to give up eventually. In Kabul British and American leaders, like the Soviet leadership more than two decades ago, have decided that in this case the losing side will have to be us. If you think (as I do) that the Kremlin finally made a wise decision, then you should consider whether it might be the wisest decision for us too. You can’t win ’em all.

But that is not what Barack Obama, David Cameron or our Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, are saying. It worries me that Anglo-American leaderships are sticking too dogmatically to the line that we’re quitting because we’ve won: that the Afghans are now ready to defend themselves successfully against the enemy within, and so we can safely leave them to it.

This is patently not true. No dispassionate observer of the Afghan scene is remotely confident that after Nato-Isaf combat troops depart, President Hamid Karzai’s government can hold the line even for the medium term — yet this remains the official script, the ritual fiction we intone. Privately in London and Washington the hope is rather different: that government forces can hold the line until the West is out of this fight, after which the story will drop from western headlines. Soon nobody here will care much any more what happens in Afghanistan, so the ‘humiliation’ of our hopes will be overlooked.

It’s not an unreasonable hope, but it’s only a hope. It is what happened after the Soviet withdrawal, when their puppet, Mohammad Najibullah, one of the country’s better leaders, managed to hang on for a couple of years after the Russians had gone. If you’ve forgotten his end in 1996 — he was publicly castrated then dragged through the Kabul streets to his execution — you may be forgiven: the media focus had by then long departed.

For the possibility that President Karzai might be as lucky as Najibullah and hang on a bit, there is certainly something to be said. In the latter’s day the Taleban and the warlords were brimming with youthful fervour and (directly or otherwise) heavily armed by the Americans, yet still took time to prevail. Today the warlords are more or less on the other side, the Taleban a more grizzled organisation, tangled up with the narcotics trade, and having perhaps generated — in that majority of the country they don’t control — more of the antibodies of popular resistance. They could struggle on for years, without really winning. They might never win, leaving the country in a state of permanent emergency. Permanent emergencies are not news.

But western leaders would be unwise to rely on the country fading from our attention. It’s just as likely that as the final pull-out approaches, the insurgents will attempt some fireworks. And it’s perfectly possible that the Afghan National Army will begin visibly to fail before we’ve even departed. A sudden and dramatic collapse of the Karzai government, post departure, cannot be discounted. In any of these circumstances, neither Messrs Cameron nor Obama will want to have nailed themselves to the proposition that we’re leaving because we’ve prevailed.

So what should they say? I speak here entirely cynically, having long lost all sense of what would actually be best for the talented and benighted people of that beautiful country. I’m simply looking at a political communications challenge for our own leaders. And I’m not proposing that our leaders admit in public that we’re ready if necessary to cut and run. That would be bad for our forces’ morale and boost the Taleban.

No, phraseology (I suggest) needs to be formulated that blurs the ‘success’ part of the message. The word ‘hope’ is recommended; some sense of the impossibility of staying forever, whatever the temptation to do so. The message, I think, is ‘We’ve done our damnedest; our troops were brilliant; but this is about all we can do. The Taleban would actually prefer to draw us back in; we were in danger of becoming their recruiting sergeants. So it may be we’ll have to take a deep breath and hold back, whatever the provocation. In the long run, only the Afghans can settle their own future.’

It’s hard to admit possible defeat before defeat has become a reality and when it may never even arrive. But often, when that fateful day dawns, you wish you had; and done it on the record.