Call to end the war in Afghanistan and take the British troops home

This article was published in the Observer

Our soldiers have shed enough blood: it is time to come home from Helmand

30 May 2010
The strategy of sending patrols out to be shot at by the Taliban is needlessly
costing the lives of British troops

It is time to stop the blood sacrifice of our young soldiers in Afghanistan. In June 2003, Tony Blair initiated the grim ritual of reading out the names of the fallen at the start of each prime minister's questions. David Cameron's first words as PM at the Dispatch Box after the Queen's Speech were an incantation to the new victims of a war that is as unwinnable as it is unwanted by the people of both Britain and Afghanistan.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev described Afghanistan as a "bleeding wound". Last week, US general Stanley McChrystal called it a "bleeding ulcer". Britain has no general, no "master of strategy" as the inscription on Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke's statue outside the Ministry of Defence puts it, with the 21st-century vision to stop the blood-letting as officers and men are sent as IED fodder. War is too important to be left to generals. Unfortunately ministers past and present have flinched from thinking strategically. If the object is to stop Afghanistan from again becoming a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks, there are alternatives to sending out men on foot patrols to be blown up by hidden bombs or shot by snipers who fade back into the hills.

The new defence secretary is now known as "13th-Century Fox" after his colonial, quasi-racist rant about Afghanistan as a 13th-century nation. President Karzai is an obsessive reader of British and American papers. Liam Fox's patronising contempt has done serious damage to Britain's influence in Kabul. Instead of apologising gracefully, Fox blustered and tried to explain away his gaffe. But he did hint at a truth when he suggested that Britain should look to reducing its military profile in Afghanistan. Unfortunately this outbreak of wisdom was slapped down by the foreign secretary, William Hague.

In Canada, the Conservative government has confirmed its troops will leave next year. There is new thinking in the Netherlands, one of Britain's key Nato allies, where the government collapsed over Afghanistan. Nato has new duties to guard its Baltic flanks and ensure that the melting Arctic becomes a sea of trade and peace. It no longer needs to define its existence by occupying Afghanistan.

There is fresh thinking among Tory MPs. In the Commons last week, Patrick Mercer MP, a former commanding officer of an infantry regiment, made the point that Britain's terrorists were bred and trained in Yorkshire, not Afghanistan. Another Tory MP, the former shadow defence minister Julian Lewis, said Britain should create sovereign strategic bases in Afghanistan to support the government and ensure al-Qaida does not return, but stop the pointless patrols that are target practice for the Taliban.

Every six months, a new commander is sent from London to head the fighting soldiers in Afghanistan. These brigadiers rotate, so that, instead of fighting one six-year war, we have fought 12 six-month wars, so that future red tabs can punch their tickets. The can-do, will-do power-point style of the British army impresses politicians, and every visiting minister and journalist is in awe of these tough, sun-burnt, dedicated professionals. It is hard to say that they and their generals are wrong, but the time has come to put parliament and elected ministers in charge. The pro-war tabloids say they are backing our boys. They are not: they are backing the generals. Officers and men ready to criticise the campaign have no voice.

Diplomats and development aid should be redirected to Pakistan and India, as well as to China and Iran, to remove the widespread feeling among Muslim communities that this is Kipling's west again seeking to control the lives of people whose customs and needs they do not understand. The burning issue of Kashmir, where 70,000 Muslims have been killed since the Indian army took over full control of the disputed region 20 years ago, needs to be put on the international agenda. The White House is clearly looking for an exit strategy. Britain also needs to begin PMQs without a roll-call of the dead and maimed. We have done our duty. It is time to come home.