Afghanistan: Looking For An Honourable Way Out

When President Obama announced that he intends to ‘finish the job’ in Afghanistan, I wondered exactly what job he was referring to; finding Osama bin Laden? Denying al-Qaeda a safe haven? Democratization? Promoting women’s rights? Curtailing the opium trade? All have been cited over the past eight years as reasons for staying in Afghanistan. With public support eroding by the day, fighting al-Qaeda now tops the list of excuses. In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is telling us we must stay the course in Afghanistan to keep our streets safe. Tenuous connections between Afghanistan and home grown terrorists aside, it is clear that from Washington to Whitehall there is a concerted effort afoot to buy time for the coalition to achieve an honourable exit.

NATO's Road to Nowhere

34,000 additional troops for Afghanistan – that’s what media reports are suggesting ahead of President Obama’s official announcement. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3,400, 34,000, or 40,000 plus troops; in my view, the situation in Afghanistan is no longer salvageable. As far back as early 2006 I was arguing that a tipping point had been reached. That year, British and Canadian forces were dispatched to Helmund and Kandahar to battle a resurgent Taliban. It was abundantly clear even then that more troops were needed to dominate the ground, but with so many NATO countries refusing to deploy to hard areas, there weren’t enough willing to do the job. Instead of demanding more support, NATO commanders bowed to political pressure. If there’s one thing I learned during my twenty-three years as a soldier, it’s that Generals who drop their pants for politicians lose military campaigns.

Earlier this year, I wrote in The Circuit that Afghanistan had passed the point of no return and that all out civil war is inevitable. I still stand by that assessment. Discord between the Pashtoon and the Northern Alliance is as strong as ever. The West can send more troops, swell Afghanistan’s security forces and press President Karzai to clean up his government but what will all this achieve in the long run? Most Afghans have lost faith in the coalition and Karzai. NATO countries can ill afford to keep pumping money into the military effort (money which in Britain’s case would be better spent fighting terrorism at home). The Pashtoon insurgency shows no signs of abating and as I’ve argued before, there is nothing to stop NATO-trained Afghan forces from joining the opposition when the West does finally leave.

What is the point of sacrificing more blood and treasure to what has become an unwinnable campaign? The bottom line is US and NATO forces need to pull out now. It may sound callous, but only the Afghans can sort themselves out.

It’s understandable that western leaders are keen to show they’ve achieved something worthwhile in Afghanistan, if for any reason than to justify the deaths of so many brave, young soldiers. Instead of flannel about al-Qaeda posing a threat to our streets, coalition countries would do well to focus on another unfinished job relating to Afghanistan – tracking and capturing Osama bin Laden ( if indeed he is alive and in the region). It would not require a prolonged troop commitment; just good human intelligence followed by a clinical drone air strike (which have been very effective at eliminating al-Qaeda leaders in recent months). Taking out bin Laden would be a concrete achievement. Besides, wasn’t he the reason the West invaded Afghanistan in the first place?

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and best-selling author of The Circuit. To read more blogs, please visit: