Afghanistan is now a bigger fiasco than Iraq. Pity the soldiers who are still in the thick of battle. Afghanistan conflict could last 40 years
For the past week I have been hearing the rattle of machine guns and the sonic booms of fighter jets tearing across the sky. It sounds like Helmand province, Afghanistan, but it is, unmistakably with the frequent showers and the bleating of sheep, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Here, in a cottage on the fringes of a busy firing range on the Welsh coast, one of Britain's longest wars does not seem as disquietingly invisible as it does in other parts of the country.
We drive across the firing range to get to the cliffs. I am slightly nervous when I see a military vehicle approaching us on the narrow road. With my dark beard and shalwar kameez I resemble the "enemy" the soldiers are being trained to fight. Who knows what apprehensions are provoked by my appearance in a military compound in the remote Welsh countryside?
Earlier this week my wife ran into, on a beach crowded with staycationers, a couple she knew from primary school in London. The husband had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. "Did you ask him anything about his experience there?" I asked my wife when she came back to the cottage. She hadn't, and I wouldn't have dared to either.
A few months ago I received a rare letter from an old friend, who is now a senior officer with the Indian navy. He said he felt compelled to respond to my criticism in an Indian magazine of India's heavyhanded military occupation of Kashmir. "It's pretty hard to take your writing," he wrote, "after seeing many of my friends and batchmates in the army killed by insurgents in Kashmir."
I couldn't reply immediately. I knew of some of these friends, and their bereaved young families. They had joined the army, as I once almost did, not so much out of patriotism as the urge to escape from lower middle-class constrictions. They probably saw Kashmir as a hardship posting, and it is likely they died for a nationalist cause they might have even thought of as unjust: of denying Kashmiris the right, once promised by India itself, of self-determination. But it was impossible to say this to my friend, or to suggest that tens of thousands of Kashmiris had also died in the previous decade.
Afghanistan – where Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still at large, democracy remains a pipe dream, and the opium traffickers are back along with a shrewder, reinvigorated Taliban – is now a bigger fiasco than Iraq. But I would have found it hard to bring this up with the husband of my wife's friend after the bloodiest month yet for British troops who are presently locked in a sisyphean struggle to recover and hold territory in Helmand. I certainly couldn't have told him that things looked hopeless even four years ago when I visited some of his fellow soldiers near Mazar-e-Sharif.
The British soldiers I met then were generous with their time, and friendly to someone they suspected to be unsympathetic. They joked about a lot, but they also spoke seriously and unaffectedly of the reconstruction work – rebuilding bridges and schools –that they were doing.
I had seen enough of Afghanistan outside their compound to know that their endeavours, though well-intentioned and vigorous, were rendered futile by the fact they had come, and were largely seen, as invaders in a country notoriously hostile to foreign armies. More confirmation came on the afternoon I joined one of their frequent patrols to the city. As our armoured jeep left the British compound, the soldiers quickly lost their easy amiability; the outside world suddenly seemed full of unseen threats. They drove very fast, cutting through the slow-moving traffic with the help of some furious honking and co-pilots who forced all other vehicles out of their way. You had to look back to notice the rage of the Afghan donkey cart drivers bullied off the tarmac and into the dusty verge where they struggled to rein in their distressed animals.
Later in Kabul, and then in eastern Afghanistan, where I saw the bigger and more heavily armed Nato and US convoys from the fearful perspective of a pedestrian, it was even clearer that a single patrol could lose hearts and minds arduously won over many months. The daily humiliations of a prolonged military occupation, among which aggressive driving ranked well below the destruction of entire villages from the air, had become as intolerable as the oppressions of the Taliban to ordinary Afghans; and the western politicians who claimed to be making progress by sending out soldiers to distribute candy and footballs to Afghan children had themselves turned into political infants.
Four years later, as a resurgent Taliban mounts daring operations in Kabul itself, the western mission in Afghanistan looks more doomed than ever. Desk-bound columnists, such as John Lloyd in the Financial Times this week, may continue to speak of western "honour" and warn that defeat in Helmand will embolden jihadists in Bradford. But no Taliban has been implicated in any terrorist conspiracy in Britain, and perhaps even Lloyd, a staunch supporter of Tony Blair's wars, doesn't assume that killing many more Muslims of southern Afghanistan would impress the Muslims of West Yorkshire.
When ill-conceived military adventures look doomed, their advocates tend to grow more strident about honour, especially if it can be upheld to the last drop of other people's blood. Richard Nixon's "peace with honour" primarily consisted of devastating Cambodia in addition to Vietnam; for some years now, maintaining honour in Afghanistan has amounted to little more than the Talibanisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Finally, the endgame in Afghanistan is in sight. Endorsed by the US state department, Britain's Foreign Office now speaks openly of talks with the Taliban. But thousands of British soldiers continue to fight, and the war, certain now to peter out in some face-saving compromise, has only just entered the most terrible phase for those still in the thick of battle. As Senator John Kerry, speaking in 1971 of his army service in Vietnam, put it, "Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands off Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say we have made a mistake."
"How do you ask," Kerry challenged the US Senate foreign relations committee, "a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" But of course governments can't ask this even if they awaken in time to the utter folly of their wars. Hence, our clear sympathy for objectors like Kerry, who refuse to serve as cannon fodder for the hubristic geopolitical experiments of politicians and journalists. Hence, too, our profound unease with uniformed men and women on active duty: they provoke our admiration for risking much more than we ever would, even if we suspect that they do so only to prolong other people's mistakes.