Max Hastings: Heroism is no substitute for an Afghan strategy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Max Hastings is a British military historian and contributing FT editor.]

President Barack Obama’s year-end review of the Afghan war asserted cautiously that General David Petraeus’s operations are going quite well so far, which caused cynics to say that this is a 20-storey building, and we still have 10 to fall. All parties to the conflict save the Taliban perceive themselves as prisoners of an unhappy predicament. The only issue is whether some outcome can be contrived which is “just good enough”, to borrow one of the military’s favourite clichés.

Both the US and British armies enthuse about progress made in Helmand and Kandahar – markets flourishing, new schools opened, civil aid projects completed, and the Highway 1 main arterial road relatively secure. Special forces’ night raids on local Taliban leaderships have achieved impressive successes. An insider often sceptical about military operations applauds the SAS, especially, as “best of British”.

The phrase most popular among commanders is “bottom up”: having almost abandoned the attempt to empower President Hamid Karzai’s government, they are now focused upon building local institutions in spite of Kabul.

Where General Stanley McChrystal enjoyed an amicable, even close relationship with Mr Karzai, his successor Gen Petraeus has almost none. He regards the president with contempt, and is bent upon sorting out the country without much help from its leader, a doubtful proposition. Gen Petraeus’s efforts are focused upon showing sufficient progress by summer to persuade Mr Obama and the American people to stay the distance, to accept a token summer troop cut in place of beginning a wholesale withdrawal.

The towering irony about Afghanistan is that almost everyone who knows the region perceives its problems as political, and thus requiring political remedies. But, because western diplomacy seems paralysed, soldiers are left to find all the solutions...

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