But while George W Bush and Tony Blair insisted on declaring Afghanistan a success — and a model for the pacification of Iraq — they apparently forgot one crucial lesson that the British had learnt years before. “Unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over” were the sage words of Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of North West Frontier Province.
Far from Afghanistan being a model for Iraq, Iraq has become a model for Afghanistan. There have been 41 Afghan suicide bombings in the past nine months, compared with five in the preceding five years. IEDs — improvised explosive devices — have become a fact of life. Three were left in roadside handcarts in Kabul last week to detonate as buses went past.
According to United Nations officials, not a day passes without a school being burnt down or a teacher being murdered, often in front of schoolchildren.
While US attention has been focused on spinning the situation in Iraq, Al Qaeda and their protectors, the Taliban have been methodically retaking Afghanistan back from the weak and ineffectual government left behind by the Bush Administration in its rush to get to war with Saddam.
So confident are the Taliban that leaders of the once secretive group have started giving interviews on Afghanistan’s new US-funded Tolo television station. This prompted Karzai last month to impose reporting restrictions that he was forced to rescind by the international community, which felt “censorship” did not sit well with attempts to showcase Afghanistan as a liberal democracy.
“People are scared when they see the Taliban on TV,” said Jamil Karzai, MP for Kabul and a nephew of the president. “Every day I get constituents coming and asking: what does this mean, are the Taliban coming back? We could never have imagined we would get in a situation where such a thing was conceivable.”
“We need to realise that we could actually fail here,” warns Lieutenant-General David Richards, British commander of the Nato-led peacekeeping force. “Think of the psychological victory for Bin Laden and his ilk if we failed and the Taliban came back. Within months we’d suffer terror attacks in the UK. I think of my own daughters in London and the risk they would be in.”
If this is winning the war on terror, what does losing look like?