Who can we believe about Afghanistan?
The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond says that the increase in attacks on Nato forces by Afghan soldiers and police is further evidence of success in vanquishing Taliban insurgents.
Do not adjust your set.
“Their stepping up of these insider attacks is in fact a mark of the success of partnering and mentoring operations, and the insurgents’ key fear that as we withdraw we will leave behind a competent and capable Afghan security force that will continue to contain their ambitions,” he told his predecessor, Liam Fox, in Parliament today.
Really? I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty who told Alice: “Words mean what I want them to mean”. Whenever there’s a Taliban attack the British government tells us that it’s a sign that the insurgents are “desperate” because they’re losing.
Through the looking glass
In fact to anyone who doesn’t live in Wonderland or see Afghanistan through the looking glass it’s clear that things are not going according to plan – hence today’s Nato directive that international troops will restrict operations with their Afghan counterparts.
On Saturday Private Tom Wroe and Sergeant Gareth Thursby of 3rd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment were killed by an Afghan policemen who pretended he was injured and then shot the two soldiers as they came to help him. They were the 55th and 56th casualties of what’s called ‘green on blue’ incidents this year.
Four US soldiers were later killed by Afghan police in Zabul province. Those incidents, combined with the furore across the Muslim world caused by the US video insulting the Prophet Mohammed, led to today’s announcement from Isaf in Kabul that combined operations would henceforth have to be signed off by a battalion rather than a company commander.
“This will affect the Brits more than anyone else because we go out and about far more,” said Michael Clarke, the director of the Royal United Services Institute. “If they persist, it undermines the whole strategy.”
Travelling with the British military in Helmand, I’ve seen training operations where four or five British soldiers went out with a couple of dozen Afghans. A serving soldier, who didn’t want me to use his name, told me that he frequently went on patrol with fewer than 10 British troops and more than 30 Afghans. Now if 30 Afghans go on operation, they will have to be accompanied by a similar number of British soldiers.
Yesterday Mr Hammond said that everything was going according to plan, and mentioned nothing about the new directive, suggesting that he wasn’t given advanced warning – the decision was taken in Kabul with no reference to London. The essence of western strategy in Afghanistan is simple: train up the Afghan forces so we can get out at the end of 2014 with our heads held high.
Mr Hammond maintains that nothing has changed, but if this “temporary” measure quietly becomes permanent it will be a serious development.
Back in 2009, then defence minister Bob Ainsworth hailed the strategy of working closely with the Afghan National Army.
“Partnering marries the discipline of UK troops – their equipment, logistics and professionalism – with the ANA skills – understanding the people, cultural sensitivity, spotting things that are not quite right. By patrolling together we’re safer and we’re stronger,” he said, adding that 90 per cent of Isaf operations would be in conjunction with Afghan forces.
It was a good plan, but every soldier will tell you that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
The tragedy of Afghanistan is that because of the Taliban’s strategy of infiltrating the Afghan security forces, Nato soldiers can no longer tell their enemies from their friends.
Follow Lindsey on Twitter via @lindseyhilsum