Bloody betrayal

Last updated at 23:01 07 July 2006

In this furious denunciation, military historian Max Hastings argues that ministers have contemptuously lied about Afghanistan - leaving our desperately undermanned army to make good Blair's bad cheques in blood

Just before leaving for my first trip to Vietnam in 1970, I telephoned a veteran correspondent for advice. "Just remember," he said, "they lie, they lie, they lie."

By "they", of course, he meant American politicians, diplomats and commanders, and he was absolutely right.

The "credibility gap" in Vietnam - the chasm between what Americans claimed was happening and what actually did - contributed mightily to the final debacle.

Britain's involvement in Afghanistan is minuscule compared with Vietnam, where 600,000 American troops were committed in the worst days of 1968.

Our deployment in Helmand province has scarcely begun. Yet already the British Government has opened a credibility gap as shameful as the Americans sponsored in Saigon. It lies, it lies, it lies.

After the killings of three British soldiers within days, Tony Blair this week pledged to give our troops whatever they need in Afghanistan. His words are a mockery.

The Army, already desperately overstretched, has scarcely an extra unit to commit to Helmand. Even if it did, there are no helicopters to move them. The Prime Minister cannot magic Chinooks out of a hat, and well he knows it.

Helicopters are vital because there is no other effective way for troops to get around an area as big as Scotland. Adding an extra battalion or two to the 3,300 British troops on the ground in Helmand is a token.

To do the job for which the Government has signed up its hapless soldiers, they do not need 4,000 or 5,000 men on the ground. Realistic planning would demand 50,000 or 100,000. These troops do not exist.

In Blair's Britain we have had gesture education policy, gesture health policy, gesture justice policy. Now, in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister gives us gesture military strategy. To explain, we need to go back to the beginning.

In 2001, with modest British support, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to depose the Taliban government, an exceptionally nasty tyranny which was providing bases and support for Al Qaeda.

Almost the entire Western world endorsed the action. It was thought a proper response to the terrorist destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The Taliban swiftly collapsed. Its fighters fled to the mountains or over the border into Pakistan.

With the job done - "mission accomplished", as George Bush idiotically declared after Baghdad was taken two years later - the Americans pulled out most of their forces. Those who remained were tasked merely to pursue Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

In the surge of international goodwill following 9/11 and the Taliban's fall, Nato's members agreed to take over from the Americans responsibility for helping the precarious new Afghan regime to secure the country, install democracy and build its own forces.

All manner of little contingents descended on Kabul: 750 Turks; 17 Czechs; ten Estonians; nine Latvians; four Swiss; larger bodies from bigger countries, to a total earlier this year of 9,000.

The Nato force mustered what would have been enough soldiers to stage quite a showy old-style Royal Tournament at Earls Court. Yet this was only a tiny fraction of the army that would have been needed to do the business in Afghanistan.

Once the shock of 9/11 faded, and the Bush administration embarked on its hugely mismanaged and unpopular invasion of Iraq, European enthusiasm fast receded for participating in American adventures in the Muslim world.

When push came to shove, most Nato members produced far fewer men and much less cash than they had initially promised. Of the European soldiers who got to Kabul, most were forbidden to leave the capital, because far-flung provinces seemed too dangerous.

Their governments were willing to let them dig wells, train policemen or guard a clinic, but were determined not to have their nationals killed fighting guerrillas.

The Kabul region became relatively secure. Elections were held. U.S. troops and aircraft continued their ruthless campaign against Al Qaeda in the mountains, killing too many civilians to win popular support.

Across most of the country, however, local warlords, who have dominated Afghanistan for most of its history, regained control.

The story gets worse. Although the Americans were notionally committed to supporting the government in Kabul, they decided there was no realistic hope of supplanting the warlords' authority in distant provinces.

Thus Washington made a devil's bargain and gave cash and arms to some uncommonly nasty people.

Today, however, there is no justice at all

In the absence of any legitimate economy, or effective government, opium production soared. Poppy production doubled between 2002 and 2004. In 1999, under the Taliban, opium was grown in only 18 of Afghanistan's provinces; today it flourishes in all 32.

The opium trade now accounts for 40 per cent of the country's economic activity. Afghan poppies provide raw material for 87 per cent of global heroin production.

The principal achievement of Western intervention in Afghanistan, therefore, has been to create the world's leading narcostate.

It was often and rightly said that the Taliban ruled by medieval principles of justice. Today, however, there is no justice at all.

It is impossible for a Westerner to travel safely outside Kabul, save in military convoys. Afghanistan ranks in the bottom-1 per cent of nations for the effectiveness of its rule of law.

Washington's blunder, of course, matched that in Iraq. The Bushies said: "We don't do nation-building".

They were uninterested in what happened to Afghanistan once the Taliban were deposed, except to maintain an open season for Bin Laden-hunting, with laser-guided munitions and U.S. special forces who make do with slaughtering the odd wedding party when they are unable to find any guerrillas.

The British Army today has 3,300 men in Helmand Province, as partial replacements for Americans who have left because they are so overstretched in Iraq.

We are supposed to be responsible for leading the entire Nato mission, though because of a tangle of multi-national committees, we have less effective executive control than the average primary school teacher.

Tony Blair and his ministers promised our soldiers would be committed to assisting Afghan reconstruction - training local soldiers, building clinics and such like. Yet, whether they like it or not, they have been deployed on a battlefield.

Americans are still carrying out search-and-destroy missions against Al Qaeda a few miles down the road. The Taliban's guerrillas are delighted to be presented with Western soldiers to shoot at. They could not care less if Mr Blair intended our boys merely to act as baby-sitters.

Any serious British attempt to interfere with the opium trade would provoke heavy fighting, because it provides the livelihoods of most of the population.

Ask any British officer to explain on one side of a sheet of paper our objectives or the chain of command and he will still be chewing his pencil an hour later.

The Government's Big Lie is to pretend our operations in Afghanistan are coherent.

The theory is that we are helping the Afghans to build up forces effective enough to look after themselves. The reality is that the Kabul government controls about 80,000 troops and police, who periodically fight each other and are hopelessly understrength.

If the mess does not make you angry, it should. This is not a predicament which nobody foresaw. Everyone who knew anything about Afghanistan forecast it from the outset.

The British, as usual, are trying much harder than any of our European partners to make their mission work. But even our finest soldiers cannot push water uphill.

Every casualty is a tragedy, but no one would flinch from some losses, if these were incurred in an operation that might succeed.

As it is, I know no responsible senior soldier, serving or retired, who believes this job is do-able with the forces we can deploy, even if Colchester and Catterick were stripped of every cook and bottlewasher to reinforce Helmand.

To be fair to Mr Blair - always a hard thing to do - Britain bears less responsibility than most for the mess we find ourselves in.

The U.S. is the principal betrayer of Afghanistan. Colin Powell memorably explained the "china shop rules" to President Bush when he was Secretary of State: "You break it, you own it."

Blair's shocking damage to this great national institution

By invading Afghanistan, albeit for good reasons, the U.S. accepted responsibility for piecing together the wreckage - and has failed because it never really tried.

European Nato nations claimed to be willing to help rebuild the country - and have betrayed their commitments.

They have sent only token forces. They have been parsimonious with mere money, never mind blood.

We shall all be the losers if, as seems likely, the West is eventually forced to abandon Afghanistan to become, once again, the anarchic haven of terrorists and drug traffickers.

We shall have shown that we lack the will and skill to restore a failed state. This will be a shocking indictment of what we laughingly call 'the international community'.

Great nations such as Germany and France make gestures, but in reality have turned their backs on Afghanistan. They hope that if they can avoid getting their soldiers killed and keep their distance from U.S. adventures, they can save themselves from the murderous wrath of the Muslim world.

A tiny force of British soldiers, however brave and able, cannot compensate for our European partners' huge act of cynicism.

The British Army will go on trying in Afghanistan, of course, because that is what it always does. Its 'can-do' spirit provides one of the reasons why we admire it so much.

If Gordon Brown wants to do something useful for our Armed Forces, rather than play politics with Trident, he could start by seeing that soldiers are paid properly.

A significant number of our men in Afghanistan as well as Iraq depend on tax credits - state benefits - to support themselves and their families. This is a shameful reflection on service pay.

I have written here before about the scandal of the Army's dependence on armoured Land Rovers - entirely inadequate vehicles in landmine country.

More helicopters cannot be found in weeks or even months, but they must at least be ordered.

For years now, the Prime Minister has committed the British Army to conduct a global crusade in fulfilment of his political fantasies. In the process, he has done shocking damage to this great national institution.

The manpower shortage is deeply worrying: not only did the Government deliberately cut Army numbers, it has also presided over a slump in recruiting, because mothers and fathers do not want sons to risk their lives in Mr Blair's campaigns.

I do not think the British Army will suffer a disaster in Afghanistan. Its men are more than a match for Taliban guerrillas, and its commanders will ensure that their men do not stick their necks out too far. But soldiers will continue to die.

The Prime Minister lies when he says that Britain's Afghan mission is capable of fulfilment. No one sensible ever thought it was.

We should have nothing but contempt for the Government which is presiding over an unholy mess, leaving our Army to make good Tony Blair's bad cheques in its blood.

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