Bruce Anderson: Afghanistan is a disaster in the making

Des Browne is what they call in Scotland a 'numpty', a hapless nullity

The Independent

Published: 04 September 2006

In combat, luck is invaluable. Even Napoleon wanted lucky generals. But he did not factor luck into his campaign calculations, in the way that the British government has in Afghanistan.

The Afghan mission was always going to be difficult. Helmand province is about the size of Scotland and the inhabitants are even more truculent. Not all Afghans are cut-throats; Afghanistan does not solely consist of bandit country. In the valleys and the cities, there have been gentler influences, including Sufism and opium. But much of the mountain country is bleak, grand, glorious and profoundly inhospitable.

Yet the inhabitants survive. Where western eyes see barely enough grazing to save a starving goat, men live and breed. They are generally small in stature but immensely tough, as if made of wire and whipcord. They have little access to letters; still less to luxuries. Denied all the softening of civilisation, they find solace in a warrior ethos and in a God of battles. Brought up on blood feuds, in a culture where ownership of a gun and the ability to use it is a rite of passage to manhood, the Afghans are one of the most untameable peoples on earth.

That said, there is a government in Kabul, largely staffed from the tiny minority of Afghans who had a foreign education. Most of the ministers are impressive. Against formidable odds, they are planning for a better future. Nato is right to protect the government and prevent the country from sliding back into Taliban control.

But that involvement should have drawn on a sense of history. We British knew from experience how hard the Afghans could fight, even before we watched them resist the Red Army. At the end of the Soviet era, Mr Gorbachev's press spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov came to London to explain that the Brezhnev doctrine had been replaced by the Sinatra doctrine; everyone could do it their way. I asked him why the Russians had invaded Afghanistan. The reply came in a flash: "Because we had not read our Kipling."

We have no such excuse and John Reid, who is well read, is a man who does not do naivety. Yet at the beginning of the Helmand deployment when he was still defence secretary he uttered one of the silliest remark ever made by a British minister: that our troops might come back from Afghanistan, "without a shot being fired". That makes Wilkins Micawber sound like Field Marshal Montgomery.

If it had just been an ill-judged comment, it would matter less. But Dr Reid's blunder is part of a mindset which has already cost several soldiers' lives and which could doom the mission to failure. When the Blair government still had claims to moral authority, ministers would use the phrase: "joined-up government". That would be a good idea and there are some obvious examples.

When British troops are overstretched everywhere, especially in two theatres of war, you do not abolish regiments. When you are sending a tiny force to control a large area, you make sure it is properly equipped. We do not know why the plane crashed on Saturday. We do know that the men in Afghanistan have to patrol in Land Rovers which offer virtually no protection, while there are far too few helicopters - and that if they were motor vehicles, some of those helicopters would not be allowed on British roads, except on vintage-car day. They could not pass their MOT.

Joined-up government; joined-up body bags. There is plenty of money to pay press officers to save ministers from embarrassment. There is no money to pay for equipment to save soldiers' lives. One would not expect the current Defence Secretary, Des Browne to understand this. In Scotland, he is what they call a "numpty" - the latest hapless nullity from New Labour's endless production line.

But John Reid is different. He has a mind. He is a patriot. He respects the armed forces; he admires the men who serve in the colours. So how could he neglect their safety while prattling platitudes? Admittedly, he was abetted by General Mike Jackson who has at last gone into a grotesquely over-honoured retirement, in which he will give regular advice to his successors with all the authority of the worst Chief of the General Staff since before the Crimean War.

The air crash was a tragic accident. But from Cairo to Kandahar, 90 per cent of the population will believe it was a Taliban success following on Hezbollah's victory. So the West will be more at risk; the threat to our soldiers in Afghanistan will increase.

We should stay in Afghanistan, but only if we will the means as well as the ends. Unless that happens, the Blair government will be condemning British troops to unavailing sacrifices in an unwinnable contest. That is not only betrayal. It is treason.