A bleak warning of heavy odds stacked against the allies in Afghanistan

Last updated at 00:40 26 October 2007

From the morass of Iraq to the killing fields of Afghanistan... is there no end to the demands being made of Britain's underpaid, indifferently-equipped, badly overstretched troops?

The answer from head of the Armed forces Sir Jock Stirrup could hardly be more sobering. Pointing out that the

conflict with the Taliban has to be resolved politically rather than militarily, he nevertheless warns that our soldiers may stay in Afghanistan for "decades".

So much for the suggestion from former Defence Minister John Reid that our forces might emerge without firing a shot.

The politicians clearly didn't have a clue that this operation would lead to some of the fiercest fighting since the Korean War, with 82 British troops killed so far.

Yet again, Ministers seem to have no coherent strategy or idea how to get out.

What, after all, are the prospects of political progress? President Karzai has little influence outside Kabul.

Much of the country is run by warlords. Nato is in disarray, with most of our allies refusing to allow their forces to fight. Moreover, the Taliban has a seemingly endless source of recruits from Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country where terrorism is on the rise and political instability threatens danger for the whole region.

Yes, our troops perform magnificently. But with growing civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes there is little sign of the allies winning hearts and minds.

Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown may be going too far in suggesting Nato has already lost in Afghanistan. But Sir Jock's warning underlines how heavily the odds are stacked against the allies.

The freedom debate

A new chapter in our country's story of liberty...

When Labour has presided over one of the most centralised and authoritarian administrations in our recent history, Gordon Brown's ringing declaration of intent on a new package of rights to protect the freedoms of the individual provoked scepticism – and not without some justification.

Yet if we set that aside for one moment, his proposals for a Bill of Rights and possibly a new written constitution could – we stress could – be an important step in curbing an over-mighty state.

Who, for example, wouldn't welcome restrictions on the army of official snoopers who can enter our homes for at

least 250 different reasons without our permission? Or moves to give MPs more say on whether Britain goes to war?

Who wouldn't be glad to see the end of the bad old Blairite law banning peaceful demonstrations near Parliament?

Anyone who believes in Press freedom should cheer moves to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (this after reports that it was to be cut back) and reverse previous plans to restrict the right of the media to report the proceedings of coroners' courts.

But of course it is difficult to forget the last ten years. This is the Government that also wanted to restrict jury trials and would have undermined free speech with its Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, had it not been thrown out by the Lords.

This same Government won't change the disastrous Human Rights Act and is pressing ahead with compulsory ID cards. Oh, and it is hell-bent on handing more power to Brussels, without the promised referendum. Small wonder civil libertarians aren't celebrating just yet.

In launching this major public consultation, Mr Brown clearly hopes that if citizens feel their rights and

liberties are more robustly protected, they will be more likely to accept tougher (and almost certainly illiberal) laws to counter terrorism.

That is the debate which lies ahead.

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