Diplomacy, your hour has come. There is no way soldiers will find an exit from Afghanistan. They can deliver defeat or they can deliver bloody stalemate. They cannot deliver victory and every observer knows it. This conflict will end only when the courage being daily demanded of soldiers is also shown by politicians.
Those who said that sending an army to Afghanistan was madness can collect their winnings and go. But diplomacy is a relativist ethic. Its practitioners cannot say "do not start from here." They must face the fact that Barack Obama and Gordon Brown are entangled in a mess from which there is no easy release.
Obama made a serious error on coming to power. To honor his pledge to disown Iraq he felt obliged to "adopt" Afghanistan. What had begun as a punitive raid on the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden morphed into a neo-con campaign of regime change, counter-insurgency and nation-building. Obama rashly identified himself with this crusade and thus leapt from the frying pan of Iraq into the fire of the Hindu Kush.
The president now owns Afghanistan. As a result, he and his British ally, Gordon Brown, are sucked into mendacity that is on the scale of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They talk of "clearing, holding and building" Afghan territory, to make the world safe from terrorist bases. Brown talks of fighting "to prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain." His helpless defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, tells troops they must stay until the Karzai government "can tackle the threat of the Taliban on its own," which he knows is never.
Such explanations insult public intelligence. The essence of world terrorism is that it does not need bases. The 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany. The safety of Britain's streets is secured not by boys dying in poppy fields but by sound intelligence and domestic policing. We learned last week that MI5's former head, Lady Manningham-Buller, specifically warned the government that British security would be harmed, not aided, by military intervention abroad. Ministers know this. Why do they lie?
The answer is because they are trapped in an alliance with America, a country also in denial. Brown does not believe in this war. That is why he left the 2006 Helmand expedition with so few helicopters and refused to reinforce it with 2,000 extra troops -- though in fairness to Brown the army did tell him that it could cope with what it had. As a result the force has had to be rescued by the Americans, to the glee of the Taliban.
The worm is now turning. Not a week passes without a military and diplomatic source questioning the government's policy, or lack of one. A high-powered British Academy seminar last Friday, attended by senior generals, diplomats and academics, was astonishingly at odds. Some said that Britain should stay "for the long haul", others that staying was a terrible mistake. Some said that security would only follow a "hearts and minds" campaign, others that it should precede it. Some wanted democracy, others said forget it. The shambles was revealing.
Washington hardly displays any greater coherence. On taking office Obama gave his favorite general, David Petraeus, three months to come up with a new Afghan strategy. The advice, to no one's surprise, was for a "surge", with more troops to hold territory and rebuild consent for the Kabul government. Obama appeared to like it.
The strategy was reminiscent of Earl Haig in the Great War, more of what had failed, but with the army still centre stage. Obama's other emissary to the region, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, is said to have despaired at the Petraeus strategy. He experienced Vietnam and could see the same mission creep occurring again. Afghanistan offered his president no wins, only losses. In addition, were continued conflict to plunge Pakistan into a full civil war, it would be a disaster of unimaginable consequences.
After 9/11, local intelligence in Afghanistan screamed for America to be patient. An immediate 1,000-strong clerical shura in Kabul declared sympathy with the dead Americans and voted for bin Laden and al-Qaeda to be told to leave the country. Taliban commanders were divided, with the younger bloods wanting bin Laden's unpopular Arabs to go at once. They had no interest in crossing America, who had trained many of them to fight the Russians and with whom they had just signed a lucrative deal suppressing poppies. Their ruler, Mullah Omar, only just overruled them.
That was the moment to turn the Taliban against al-Qaeda. Instead Bush attacked and cemented their alliance, making bin Laden the hero of the region. But just as it suited Bush to identify the Taliban with al-Qaeda, so it should now suit Obama to do the opposite. The Taliban has never shown any interest in international terrorism, only in ridding their country of foreigners. On this truth should some eventual deal be built.
The idea of establishing Afghanistan as a western-style democracy is dead. The dreams of Kabul's NGO groupies, to install technocrats or elevate women or eradicate poppies, have vanished in a morass of corruption and aid extravagance. The best hope is for a series of regional deals and compromises, transferring power to local warlords or Taliban coalitions, behind which military withdrawal can gradually take place. The west failed to "build a nation" in Kabul, despite tipping billions of dollars into its underworld. Only colonialists build nations, and the will for empire was never present.
For progress to be made down this messy road, the gung-ho militarism of Petraeus and the British army must be countered. The hyping of British military casualties is wrong, as it suggests that any withdrawal will be defeat. The Canadians, who have suffered terrible losses in Afghanistan, have shown their sovereignty by signaling their intention to leave in 2011. Why not Britain?
Originally published in The Guardian.