Alex Massie Alex Massie

Redefining the war

Our aim in Afghanistan is no longer to secure victory but to avoid obvious defeat, says Alex Massie

There are more than 100,000 American and Allied troops in Afghanistan. That is, there are more than 1,000 troops for every suspected al-Qa’eda ‘operative’. Not for the first time in Afghanistan means, ways and ends appear to be out of kilter. There are more Nato troops than are needed to combat al-Qa’eda but not enough to build a proper, ordinary country. No wonder Afghanistan has become a grimly expensive halfway house — neither wholly occupied, nor treated with a light touch.

Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s brisk, broad survey of the war is drily un- impressed by American strategy. It is sub- titled ‘How the West Lost its Way’, and its authors, who are academics — King’s College, London and Glasgow University respectively — imply that western policy has been based on a Micawberish view that, with sufficient persistance and perspiration, something will eventually turn up to solve, or at least pacify, the Afghan Question. It hasn’t.

Like most observers Bird and Marshall are long on criticism and shorter on solutions, but they are especially sceptical about the ‘clear, hold and build’ counter- insurgency doctrine currently favoured by the Americans. There is much clearing, plenty of holding and even some building. But to what purpose?

Instead, the authors suggest, President Obama should have listened to his Vice-President. Joe Biden’s preferred option of a smaller American force dedicated to counter-terrorist actions was not popular at the Pentagon, but it had the benefit of focusing attention on a goal that might actually be achieved without having to be redefined after the fact.

Osama bin Laden’s death may spur a reappraisal of American policy. Some members of Congress are beginning to call for the troops to return home sooner than the Pentagon presently deems possible. At some point too, someone will need to talk to the Taleban if there’s to be any kind of political solution to Afghanistan’s problems.

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