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The Troops in Afghanistan Really Are Being Betrayed -- By the Politicians Who Keep Them There

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Now it has been running longer than the First World War and the Second World War combined, the war in Afghanistan has descended into a blood-splattered edition of Punk'd. For the entire autumn of 2010, the US and British governments were negotiating with a man called Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. They identified him as one of the leaders of the Taliban, so they opened negotiations in the Presidential palace with him by offering fistfuls of cash. He haggled with President Hamid Karzai over how to end the war, poring over maps and plans. It was only months later that they finally realized: Mansour was in fact just a Pakistani grocer with no more links to the Taliban than your local shop-owner. He made it all up.

In our tenth year of military occupation, that's how well we understand Afghanistan - that a random shop-keeper from another country can convince us he is the most important person there to negotiate with.

Now imagine you are an American soldier sent to kill and to die in Afghanistan. You know 345 of your fellow soldiers have been killed out there, in the heat and the dust, from snipers and roadside bombs and disease. You know there is a serious risk you could be next. Then you hear the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, whose government you are supposed to be defending, wondering out loud about whether he should defect to the Taliban.

Our policy in Afghanistan consists of a series of insults to the troops we have sent there. Perhaps the most startling is that "our side" is in fact funding the Taliban, who then use the money to shoot back at the troops. The journalist Aram Roston exposed in the magazine The Nation that the American forces are currently paying the Taliban and other insurgents hundreds of millions of dollars to let their supply trucks pass through key areas without being blown up. It's one of the Taliban's major sources of income, and they have obviously made the calculation that it's worth it to let these vehicles pass because they can plant more and deadlier bombs with the cash elsewhere. After all this time, the war is riddled with these moral contortions.

But the greatest insult is that we are not giving the troops a good or honest reason to fight. They are told the main reason they have to be there is to keep all of us safe back home -- but the evidence suggests their mission is in fact placing us in greater danger.

You have to go through this step-by-step. Our governments say al Qaeda attacks are planned and prepared in training camps, so we need to physically deprive them of the space to put up their tents, anywhere in the world. It sounds plausible at first. But look more closely. The jihadi massacres in the West were planned in Hamburg, Florida, and Yorkshire - and nobody who did it was an Afghan. They learned their skills from google and from legal flying schools. Many intelligence experts say physical training camps are irrelevant, and anyway, if you send an army crashing in, the tents can easily be packed up relocated to Somalia, or Yemen, or the Philippines, or any other fraying state.

Are we going to drop bombs on every suspect cave and hill-top in the world? That's precisely what Osama Bin Laden wants. In 2004, he bragged: "All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen [jihadi fighters] to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written "al-Qa'ida" in order to make generals race there, and we cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses - without their achieving anything of note!

Why is Bin Laden so keen on this endless war? Because he knows that every time a Western country barges in to a country it doesn't understand with bombs, it kills innocent people - and so swells his army of recruits. For every one suspected jihadi killed in Afghanistan, we have killed fifty innocent people. (And our negotiations with a fake Taliban leader give you some idea of how good we'll be at picking targets to kill.) If a foreign power was occupying us and killing our families in this way, we too would fight back.

As a group including Howard Hart, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan, says: "The very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem. The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition." And these killings are watched closely by young Muslims across the world -- just as they watched our atrocities in Muslim countries before 9/11 -- and some of whom will become enraged and hate-filled enough to blow up the London Underground, or Times Square.

So it's not making us safer. Our troops are then told they are making Afghanistan safe for democracy. There's a gnawing irony there. Some 70 percent of Americans want withdrawal. Some 77 percent of Afghans say the airstrikes and bombings are "unacceptable". Though there's been no polling, almost all the soldiers I've met believe the war is futile and should end. So we have the unwilling occupying the unwilling on behalf of the unwilling - in the name of democracy. All in a country where turnout in one district, Paktika, was 626 percent.

We're not even making Afghan women safer, one of the few plausible reasons to have supported the war initially. We transferred power from the vile woman-hating Taliban to vile woman-hating warlords who claim to support "us". In most parts of the country, women are imprisoned in their houses, as they were before. Look at my friend, Malalai Joya, the 32 year old woman who ran a secret underground girl's school in the Taliban years and then ran for office once they were toppled. Because she defended women's rights, she was expelled from the new "democratic" Afghan parliament, and now lives in hiding from both the Taliban and "our" side, who are constantly trying to kill her. She says: "Even during the terrible Taliban regime, atrocities against women weren't as rife as now and the graph is hiking each day." As a leaked report from a US official confirmed: "The general view of the Afghan people is that the current [Afghan] government is worse than the Taliban."

Time magazine famously ran a front-page picture of an 18-year-old girl whose nose and ears had been cut off, with the headline: "What happens if we leave Afghanistan." Yet the journalist Ann Jones had interviewed Aisha a few weeks before. What happened is that she ran away from a vicious abusive husband, and he caught her and mutilated her face. This despicable violence is happening in Afghanistan in the areas controlled by the Taliban, and the areas controlled by "our" side. As Joya, who Afghan women elected as their representative, says: "The headline should have been: 'What happens in Afghanistan under the current occupation.'" This war does not, alas, change those mutiliations, and it is pure propaganda to pretend it does.

We all know this war is unwinnable. Our politicians know it too. They know that each year we stay, the situation gets worse: in the past year alone, the number of children being killed spiked by 55 percent. What will we do in years ten, eleven and twelve that we didn't do in the first nine? Aren't we learning from the revolutions across the Arab world that there is only one route to liberation -- and it comes from within? Yet our politicians keep the troops there, because they are too cowardly to admit their terrible mistake and bring them home. We should be furious on our soldiers' behalf. As Lieutenant John Kerry said at the height of the Vietnam War: "Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent newspaper. You can read more of his articles here. You can follow him on Twitter at

This article originally appeared in the British edition of GQ magazine.