There are two wars going on in Afghanistan at present, not one as is generally perceived. The first is a war of choice against the Taliban in which we seek to build a stable, peaceful democratic Afghan state. The second is a war of necessity against al Qaeda who we seek to eliminate as a terrorist threat.
Neither war is going well. There is no conceivable hope that we can eliminate the rampant corruption at every level of the Afghan government, and therefore no hope that we can bring peace and stability to that country. But we continue to prop up Hamid Karzai while we try to win hearts and minds amongst the populace. To that end we go out to remote villages, find the village elders and sit down and talk with them. We offer education for their children, medical aid for their community, trading opportunities and financial support, and even weapons so they can defend themselves from the Taliban. The Taliban have a much simpler approach. They go to the remote villages, find the village elders and kill them. Their approach is going to trump ours every time because we can’t occupy and defend every village in Afghanistan and the Taliban know that what the Americans were fond of saying in Vietnam is true, “if you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
So why don’t we cut our losses and just pull out? The problem we have is with the second war, against al Qaeda. We were on the verge of completely defeating them back in 2003 when we shifted our attention away and invaded Iraq instead. The war in Afghanistan suddenly became the forgotten war, starved of resources, devoid of leadership, and out of the public eye. Al Qaeda used that respite well. They have regrouped and organised a network of training camps not just in northern Pakistan, but in other regional hot spots around the world. Afghanistan is important to us because it is the only land base close to their heartlands from which we can operate. If, or when, we lose Afghanistan as a base, operations against al Qaeda can only be conducted by air across what will then be a very hostile Taliban controlled Afghanistan, or an already hostile Iran, or an increasingly hostile Pakistan. If we lose Afghanistan, we may lose any hope of defeating al Qaeda in Pakistan.
The consequences will be severe indeed. We will leave al Qaeda free to operate against us from a secure base, immune from attack by us. They will continue to destabilise Pakistan and will in a few short years take possession of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. We should then reflect on the lie of WMD’s that took us into war with Iraq and which gave al Qaeda this unprecedented opportunity.