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Throughout the summer, the news in Britain was dominated by the fatalities in Afghanistan and an acrimonious debate about military equipment. Realising that the war was unpopular, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, belatedly announced a "strategy", based on the inapposite and tired Northern Ireland model of talking to "moderate" terrorists. In southern Iraq, this led US officers to raise their eyebrows and mutter "not that again", before they had to sort out Basra after the British handed it over to gangster militias. Unlike the IRA provos, the Afghan Taliban have not been stalemated.

There is a wider strategic context. President Obama has embarked on his Afghan surge to create a breathing space for elections. The objective is to stop the Taliban creating a haven for al-Qaeda. That means underwriting Hamid Karzai's regime, which many Afghans regard as corrupt, while the increased foreign troops deliver more recruits for the Taliban and the mujahideen. The Soviets tried this, using the Red Army to bolster a modernising communist regime. They abandoned the place after a decade, leaving 15,000 of their own dead, one third of the population as displaced refugees, as well as border signs saying: "Welcome to the seventh century BC."

There are obvious problems with the British government's confused exercise in militarised nation-building. Andrew Robathan MP has asked what we are seeking to achieve in Afghanistan: "The Minister has spoken about narcotics, the economy, the government and all sorts of things. What exactly, succinctly and clearly, is the mission that our soldiers are pursuing, and to which their energies should be devoted?" Al-Qaeda is based in Pakistan, whence it is establishing a presence in Mali, Mauritania, Somalia and Yemen. Are we going to invade them too? 

The only way to tackle al-Qaeda is to tone down the tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, in order to enable enhanced deployment of the Pakistani army in the tribal badlands. Any Western military action should be confined to the stealthy assassination of al-Qaeda's leadership and weapons experts, as has been done to some effect already. This is also cheap. While a projected $65 billion (£40 billion) is about to be frittered away next year hiring a lot of illiterate policemen to stiff Afghan motorists, a mere $80 million (£50 million) buys 800 Hellfire missiles, and $500 million (£300 million) 24 more Reaper drones to launch them. At least when governments bail out banks they expect to get some money back. Talk of a 30 years' commitment to Afghanistan is the equivalent of unlimited credit in a casino, where the odds are similarly stacked against the player. How do Brown and Miliband see a future Afghan state? Anyone who knows about the place says that their vision of a centralised "progressive" polity is doomed to fail in a mountainous country with ethnic rivalries, strong traditions of tribal autonomy and a conservative religious culture.

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