The defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, may believe he is doing his best for the troops in Afghanistan. But it is one thing to say, as he did yesterday, that Britons at home must hold fast – as the UK death toll passed the 200 mark this weekend. It is quite another to define what granite-like object we should all be holding fast to.
Is the mission to clear the Taliban out of Afghanistan? There is no reliable evidence to support the claim he made yesterday that Operation Panther's Claw has brought 80,000 Afghans out from under the tyranny of insurgents – quite the contrary.
When journalists gather their own evidence, a disquietingly different picture emerges. It is one in which the Taliban operates with ease, attacking in small groups and moving by night, confident of the support of the local population, people who often come from the same tribe.
Whether or not it is written in the Qur'an that the best way to fool a drone in the dark is to stand still, fighters loyal to the commander Jalaluddin Haqqani were abundantly confident of their ability to lay mines and mount bomb and gun attacks, no matter how big a foreign force they faced.
They told our reporter, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, that the more foreign troops there were, the more targets they had. Or take the experience of our photographer, Sean Smith, who was embedded with the Black Watch in Lashkar Gah and the US 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Paktia. In the weeks he was with the Black Watch, he saw only one "enemy" body, that of a 15-year-old girl who had been killed in an airstrike on a Taliban position. She had probably been kept by the fighters to cook for them. And this in a period of heavy fighting.
There was little evidence on the ground of how effective British troops were being at fighting the Taliban. Paktia province in particular tested our defence secretary's blithe assumption that the Taliban and the villagers that US troops were trying to protect were two different groups of people.
Counterinsurgency theorists imagine the role of the military mission as creating a "space" to be filled by the nascent institutions of the Afghan state – its army, police and judiciary. But here too, amid preparations for elections this week, there is scant evidence of theory translating into practice on the ground.
The Afghan police are still reluctant to go into the Helmand villages that US and UK troops have cleared. And against whom is this "clearing" being defined? After eight years we still have no clear idea who the enemy are, or how to distinguish them from the local population.
Much will be made this week of the numbers who participate in the presidential election, an act that will spell defiance of the Taliban. This will be nowhere truer than in Kandahar, the country's second largest city, from where Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, began his march to power.
A small Canadian force has prevented 15,000 Taliban from retaking the city, at a cost of 125 soldiers, the highest proportion of casualties of any coalition partner. As the Canadians acknowledge, theirs has been little more than a finger-in-the-dyke operation. The city is being held, not for democracy, but for Hamid Karzai's powerful half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has been accused of handing out government jobs and land to his friends and allies, and of extensive involvement in drug trafficking.
Here lies the central problem. As the casualties mount and domestic patience wears thin, the coalition mission will steadily downgrade its once lofty nation-building objectives.
If it remained true to them, tackling corruption among the likes of Ahmed Wali Karzai would remain as integral to the project as keeping the Taliban out.
In the end neither of these objectives will be secured, and the Afghanistan that the troops leave behind may not be unlike the one which greeted their arrival. Large parts of the Pashtun south will still be dominated by the forces we are currently fighting.
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