Christopher Booker, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, claims that "one of the best kept secrets of our recent politics" was the way in which the military campaign in Iraq "turned into one of the greatest humiliations in the history of the British Army". I don't know quite what is so secret about the well-publicised failure, which ended up in British forces standing on the sidelines while the Americans came in and rescued Basra from the religious militias our commanders and politicians had cheerfully handed it to a few months earlier. At most, the British press patriotically declined to make much of our pitiful national performance, preferring to take mostly at face value the government's claims of a job well done. It's undoubtedly true, though, that the six-year long operation, which began with lies and finished up with the new government of "liberated" Iraq barely able to conceal its disdain for Britain's much vaunted military valour, was not among our finest hours.
Iraq itself, though, hasn't turned out too badly. True, it remains one of the world's most unstable and troubled countries. Over the past few days there has been a spate of lethal suicide attacks, killing around 150. Full-scale civil war, however, seems to have been avoided and it is at least possible to see Iraq slowly returning to a state of dull normality. In which case, history's verdict on the invasion may turn out to be less harsh than reaction at the time. Though it is hard to see the British role in it attracting much praise.
But what of Afghanistan? Booker thinks that this, too, is becoming an under-publicised disaster, from which once again we are having to be extricated by the Yanks. He writes:
In March 2006, our forces were deployed to take responsibility for the southern province of Helmand. Again and again they have taken some town from the Taliban and then been forced to abandon it, and American troops have had to be called in to retake it, with or without British assistance.
In December 2007, the US provided the bulk of the troops and assets needed to retake Musa Qala. In April 2008, the US Marines retook Garmsir. This month the Marines retook Nowzad and, although no formal announcement has been made, it seems that the US forces under General David Petraeus, architect of the famous Iraq "surge", have taken over responsibility for much of Helmand.
Britain's ability to operate independently in this part of the world, or any other, is a relatively parochial consideration, however. What it really shows is that it has become impossible to hold the line using the relatively few and (by comparison with US forces) woefully under-equipped men available to the British army. This is a high-intensity but spatially diffuse conflict, with increasingly unclear and even contradictory goals. It is questionable whether even the Americans will be able to "win" it, in any manner in which victory can readily be distinguished from defeat. Hitherto, the news management arm of the Ministry of Defence has shown itself far more adept at propaganda on the home front (as seen, for example, in last year's heartwarming deployment of Prince Harry), than in defeating the Taliban. But sooner or later it is bound to meet reality. The result will, for everyone concerned, be traumatic indeed.
The most serious problem, ironically, is that Afghanistan is a "popular" war. By contrast with the misbegotten adventure in Iraq, military intervention in Afghanistan was uncontroversial to begin with and has retained a large measure of public and cross-party support. On Friday's Newsnight Review, Tory spokesman Michael Gove - discussing a sequence of Afghan-themed plays showing at the Tricycle Theatre - remarked that "no-one could leave" the performance without concluding that going into the country was "the right thing to do". And this despite the Lefty bias of the theatre's general output. One of the most cogent criticisms of the Iraq war, indeed, is that it diverted attention from the far more worthwhile job of rebuilding Afghanistan.
There are several reasons for this general support. There have been notable acts of heroism to celebrate. Above all, the narrative - if not the actual situation - is straightforward. There's an easily-identifiable "evil", in the form of the oppressive, women-hating, alien-looking Taliban. If any group of people may be said to represent the opposite of everything we believe in, from feminism to shaving, it's the Talibs. There's nothing obviously in it for us, either. It can hardly be said to be about oil.
The suppression of heroin production is sometimes invoked in defence of the action, and Gordon Brown, like other politicians and security sources, has repeatedly if improbably claimed that setting up camp in Helmand is the best way of keeping terrorism off the streets of Dewsbury or Luton. But such justification sounds feeble, and perhaps it is intended to. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that we are in Afghanistan to help Afghan girls go to school. Since our cause is just, it seems almost self-evident that we will prevail. At first, too, everything seemed to be going well. The Taliban were quickly defeated, or simply melted away, amid scenes of jubilation. That first impression of success has proved tenacious, even as the settlement has slowly unravelled.
If ever a foreign adventure deserved to succeed, this one does. But morality and military success are very different things, and after almost eight years of continuous fighting the gains made in Afghanistan look more fragile than ever. To walk away would be humiliating, shameful - and would be to take away from the Afghans at least some of the progress that has been achieved. But that progress, looked at objectively, has been modest, hardly worth the cost in lives or money. The realities on the ground must ultimately trump the idealism in which they have become lost. So too, in the present straitened financial climate, must the cost. The mission in Afghanistan cost the Treasury £2.6 billion last year. The Americans, it need hardly be said, are spending far more. Such expenditure is neither justified nor sustainable.
There was always moral ambiguity to Western policy in Afghanistan. The initial defeat of the Taliban came only with the help of warlords and gangsters, many of whom found themselves in power. Corruption, from the start, was rife. And troubling facts keep emerging. The West's hand-picked president Karzai shows himself willing to do deals with the Taliban and other extreme religious conservatives - most recently signing into law measures which have widely been summarised as "legalising rape in marriage". A young student journalist was sentenced to twenty years for "blasphemy" after distributing a pamphlet about women's rights. Prisons still house rape victims and women fleeing abusive marriages. The legal system is an international scandal. It is several years since George W. Bush, with characteristic overstatement, claimed that Afghan women were "free". Today Christina Lamb can write:
In the past three years, going back and forth to Afghanistan, I have watched the situation for women deteriorate. Many of the new girls’ schools have been burnt down. According to the education ministry, 122 school buildings were blown up or burnt down in the past year and another 651 schools forced to close owing to lack of security. Last November acid was thrown in the faces of 15 girls and teachers going to school in Kandahar. Two months earlier, the city’s top policewoman, Malalai Kakar, was gunned down with her son. One of the country’s best-known actresses fled to Pakistan after her husband was shot dead, and two weeks ago a female-rights activist was murdered in broad daylight outside her house.
Malalai Joya, a young woman MP who criticised warlords, was suspended from parliament and now lives in hiding, protected by five gunmen. Last November she shocked a London audience by declaring that the situation for women in Afghanistan is now worse than it was under the Taliban.
Heartbreaking. But also proof that however noble our Afghan policy may seem, it is futile.
Our soldiers continue to die: announcements of their deaths have become routine features of news bulletins and Prime Minister's Questions. The Royal Marines' 45 Commando, who returned from a six month tour in Helmand last week, suffered a fatality or serious injury every three days. A minister described the fighting they had endured as the most intense since World War II. And to what end? The Taliban have evidently not been defeated, nor are they on the brink of defeat: instead, they are advancing further into Pakistan almost by the day.
More generally, the evils against which we were supposed to be campaigning are little diminished. Nor should this come as a surprise. The Taliban didn't invent poppy cultivation, burqas or child marriage. The modern world has never penetrated beyond major cities such as Kabul. Afghanistan is too vast a country, too decentralised, for foreign intervention to transform. And history gives stern warnings to any foreign state that would dare make the attempt. The Russians failed, though they came in greater numbers and had more local support. So will we - despite the Obama administration's determination to pour yet more resources into the unwinnable war. But when the time comes to slink away few will notice. We will be too busy trying to rescue Pakistan.