The recent tragic deaths of two more British servicemen in Afghanistan, Lance Corporal Lee Davies from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards and Corporal Brent McCarthy of the Royal Air Force, highlighted the precarious situation the British continue to find themselves in Afghanistan. They were part of an advisory team, aiming to provide security near a base in Helmand province. The Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, has said: “Both servicemen were performing an invaluable role, training and mentoring Afghan police, helping to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a place from which international terrorists can launch attacks on our society.”
Unfortunately, I do not share his optimism. Time is running out for the coalition’s troops. In March this year, our Prime Minister, alongside Mr Obama, claimed that by 2013 our troops will exist only in a supporting role. By the end of 2014, British and American combat troops are expected to have left altogether and Afghanistan will be able to defend itself.
But this is an absolute fantasy. Have we learned nothing from the ‘”Vietnamisation” process of the early 70s? The script is almost identical, a public sick of a decade of war and unnecessary loss of life at the same time as economic crises shifting attention away from foreign policy. The smart political response is to try and get out as quickly as possible whilst still maintaining a facade of responsibility. By claiming we are succeeding in training up Afghan forces, Mr Cameron and Mr Obama are making sure we can leave Afghanistan without a major backlash from our public or indeed the international community.
But as it did in Vietnam, the process of “Afghanisation” (for want of a better word) is failing. We don’t know for sure whether last week’s incident was definitely the result of Taliban infiltration into the security services, but it is part of a worrying trend. So called “green on blue” killings have risen to 22 this year, showing a severe breakdown in the relationship between coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts.
In March, Massoud Khan Nourzai, a MP from Helmand, said: “The Afghans are becoming more ideologically opposed to the foreigners being here day-by-day.” This will have disastrous consequences in the long term. The Afghan police force and army will never be able to contain the Taliban if a large proportion of individuals in the community sympathise with them.
A further issue that is never addressed in the Western media is the ethnic dimension to this. Much of the East and South of Afghanistan is Pashtun, an ethnicity which has cause to resent the rule over them by the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recent drone attacks as well as the capture of Bin Laden have so damaged US-Pakistan relations that it is hard to see any long term commitment from Pakistan in helping to maintain this fragile peace either.
In short, if we leave Afghanistan in 2014, Afghan forces will not have the ability or willingness to fight the Taliban, and Pakistan will not help them do it. The only rational and reasonable approach now is to come to a negotiated peace with the Taliban and, if necessary, some sort of power sharing agreement.