Friday, 3 February 2012

3 February 2012

Do the names Ian Sartorius-Jones and Gajbahadur Gurung mean anything to you?

Probably not, unless you knew them or their families personally -- but they both died in Afghanistan last week while serving with the British army.

They were the 396th and 397th British service personnel to die in Afghanistan since the anti-Taliban invasion of 2001 -- so the likelihood is that within the next few weeks, the death toll will reach 400.

Now cast your mind back to June 2010. That's when the British military death toll in Afghanistan reached 300. David Cameron had been prime minister for barely a month, and he said this: "We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place, and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there."

What do you think he meant by the words "keeping our country safe … making our world a safer place"?

This is what I think he meant: defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda, or at the very least weakening them to such an extent that they pose only a minimal threat.

But now consider that leaked NATO report, based on interviews with thousands of alleged Taliban detainees, which made the headlines this week: "Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government, usually as a result of government corruption."

What's more, it suggested there has been "unprecedented interest, even from members of the Afghan government, in joining the Taliban cause."

If you were listening to the programme on Wednesday evening, you'll have heard the former Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani and the Conservative MP Rory Stewart both agreeing that the only hope for the future of the country is to bring at least some of the Taliban back into the mainstream political process.

In which case, if you were the parent or relative of a member of the British armed forces in Afghanistan, you might be tempted to ask: "Excuse me, Mr Cameron, if the Taliban are on their way back anyway, why exactly are we still sending servicemen and women into harm's way?"

The current plan is for "substantial numbers" of British troops to start withdrawing from Afghanistan next year, and for all combat troops to be gone by the end of 2014. The word yesterday from Downing Street was that the 9,000-strong UK contingent will have ended their lead combat role by the end of next year.

And the Americans are now signalling that they hope to have had made a transition from combat to training and advice by the end of next year as well -- that's rather sooner than they'd previously envisaged -- with more than 20,000 of the current 99,000 US troops in the country having returned home by the end of 2013.

So here's the picture: by the end of next year, substantial numbers of US and British troops will have left Afghanistan. And Taliban commanders, in the words of the leaked NATO report, "increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable."

Their confidence may, of course, be misplaced. And it is certainly arguable that by maintaining military pressure on them, the US and its allies will make the Taliban more prepared to engage in a genuine political dialogue.

Meanwhile, there's still the Pakistan issue to be dealt with -- to quote that NATO report again: "Reflections from detainees indicate that Pakistan's manipulation of Taliban senior leadership continues unabated."

Pakistani officials repeatedly deny that they maintain close covert links with the Taliban, but Western intelligence agencies are convinced that, as David Cameron put it 18 months ago, Islamabad is "looking both ways" in the fight against terrorism.

Perhaps it's worth bearing this in mind, though. When Pakistani officials talk of the Taliban, they're thinking principally of the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan variety. (Taliban, by the way, simply means students, a reflection of the movement's origins in the religious schools, or madrassas, that were attended by tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979.)

The Afghan Taliban, if the Western spooks are right, are largely guided and run by Pakistani military intelligence. Their Pakistani namesakes, on the other hand, devote much of their time to attacking that same Pakistani military.

According to a New York Times analysis: "They share an ideology and a dominant Pashtun ethnicity, but they have such different histories, structures and goals that the common name may be more misleading than illuminating."

None of which, I suspect, will be of much comfort to the British troops on the front line.

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