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September 02, 2006

14 British Servicemen killed in Afghanistan: withdraw or push on?

Afghanistan is one of the most troubled states in the world. Only a handful of African states fare worse because of the enormous death toll caused by civil war.

The government of Hamid Karzai only has power over a small part of the country, centred on the capital, while the rest of the country is largely lawless, run by warlords and drug dealers. Attacks on young girls haven’t subsided since the apparent fall of the Taliban, and liberalism is taking a long time to spread in parts of the countrry. Amongst the landmines, poppy fields and tribal fighting sit the NATO forces, many of whom are currently British.

The number of British deaths in the country has been running at a considerably worse rate than in Iraq, and the main reason Afghanistan isn’t seen as such a disaster is that there’s a sense that things were worse before we invaded in 2001.

Essentially the Afghan mission is seen as a noble one, which is why we will tolerate greater losses than we would in Iraq. But there are still questions about whether we can make a difference in Afghanistan. The mission may be noble, but it could well prove to be futile too.

A British general said last month that fighting in the country was more intense than anything the British have seen since the 1950s, and it’s possible to draw comparisons with what the U.S. found in Vietnam.

But the problems in Afghanistan aren’t just military ones. There’s the long-term question of how the country will be unified if peace can be brought to the country. The sad likelihood is that peace, if achieved, would only be temporary. As we’ve found in Iraq, killing insurgents only encourages more to join the fight. And while war continues, the economy suffers and opium production becomes more essential to the people of Afghanistan. The longer it takes, the more violent Afghanistan will become. But as with Iraq, and the ‘War on Terror’ in general, achieving victory will always be an unachievable objective.

We have to push on. The country will only get worse if we leave. But we shouldn’t expect it to be easy, quick, or particularly successful. NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan will be a long, arduous one, with complete success very unlikely.


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