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Out of sight, out of mind – a rotten way to quit a war: By Philip Stephens

The west’s errors in Afghanistan – strategic, political and military – are too legion to list.

Whatever happened to the war? You know the one. The west has been fighting it for a decade. The costs run to a trillion dollars plus. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been wounded or killed. The conflict was once an existential test of the Nato alliance. Now, the US and its allies are scampering for the exit. They probably do not have much choice about leaving. But, please, not like this.

We live in an age of short attention spans. The west’s fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan is no longer headline news. Politicians, generals, diplomats and much of the media are joined in an unspoken conspiracy that says out of sight, out of mind. This script declares the International Security and Assistance Force will leave behind a stable and sustainable Afghan government when the troops head home next year. Security will belong to the Afghan National Army. The official history can record, as George W Bush said of Iraq, that this was another “mission accomplished”. Keep reading >>>>The

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tellers of this tall story privately admit deep embarrassment at the duplicity. What is planned is a retreat. There are indeed scenarios under which Afghanistan could hold together afterwards, but they stretch the most elastic limits of plausibility. In its latest report to Congress, even the Pentagon points up the Taliban’s resilience. Western forces, it admits, will long be needed to prevent a collapse of the Afghan government. An honest prognosis says that the presence of a few thousand western advisers and trainers will not stop the Taliban from retaking control of its Pashtun heartlands. The Afghan army, trained and equipped by Nato at vast expense, already loses more troops to desertion than it recruits. The present government might hold on to Kabul, but Afghanistan faces a slide into civil war. Not so long ago Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, was feted as a champion of a new democracy. Now it is said Barack Obama can scarcely bear to speak to him. A hopelessly belated US attempt to open peace talks with the Taliban has fallen victim to the poisonous atmosphere between Washington and Kabul. Riddled with corruption, Mr Karzai’s government wants at once western money and convenient distance from its foreign paymasters. The west’s mistakes in Afghanistan – strategic and tactical, political and military – are too legion to list. Most, but by no means all, can be laid at the door of the Bush administration. Expelling al-Qaeda and the Taliban was a reflex response to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001. Military success made way for political myopia. Someone decided that Afghanistan needed a centralised constitution – a political architecture destined to fail in a viscerally tribal country. The defeat of the Taliban was followed by a protracted period of malign neglect as the US turned its attention to Iraq. Anti-narcotics programmes came and went. Even after troops from several dozen nations had poured in under the umbrella of Isaf, no one could decide whether this was a counterinsurgency or a counterterrorism campaign. The Germans thought they were there to rebuild communities; the British wanted a scrap. Isaf promised to stamp out corruption, while the CIA bribed local warlords with large suitcases filled with used dollar bills. Everyone ignored a basic rule of such conflicts – they cannot be won if the insurgents retain a haven in a neighbouring state, in this case Pakistan. Humiliation in Iraq drove British commanders to fatal recklessness in Afghanistan. Troops poured into Helmand province promising a quick victory. Hundreds of young soldiers died for nought. Mr Obama must bear a sizeable share of the blame. Before the 2008 election he described Afghanistan as the “good war” to mark it out from Iraq. He seemed ready to conduct a serious counterinsurgency campaign. Then he promised a political strategy to accompany military drawdown. Eventually he settled on an exit strategy aptly described by Henry Kissinger as all exit and no strategy. The ambition to build a western-style democracy always stretched credulity. When generals such as Stanley McChrystal started talking about a decades-long military campaign, anyone with political nous knew the game was up. What might have been possible, just, was a political accommodation between Kabul and the moderate elements of the Taliban – with the support of regional neighbours including Iran as well as Pakistan and India. Mr Obama never tried. He clung on to the essentially stupid mantra that talking to the enemy is somehow an act of appeasement. The refusal, until a month or two ago, to talk to the Taliban was accompanied by a resolute unwillingness to broaden discussions with Iran beyond the issue of Tehran’s nuclear programme. The consequence? No hope of the political accord that every diplomat I have ever spoken to says is the only worthwhile guarantee of relative stability. Some might say that by pulling out, the US president has answered the question often posed by his former envoy to the region, the late Richard Holbrooke: if the enemy is al-Qaeda in Pakistan why are we fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan? A stepped-up drone campaign against the jihadis in Pakistan has become Mr Obama’s excuse to do nothing in Afghanistan. This was never Holbrooke’s intention: the former state department official understood the responsibility of the US to strive for a political accommodation. It took three or four years after the Soviets began their withdrawal in 1988 for Afghanistan to descend into civil war. Nato may be betting on a similar stay of execution. By 2018 will anyone in the west care who runs Kabul? Maybe not. But what a rotten way to leave.

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