The Tipping Point in Afghanistan

Two years ago, at the end of a four-month stay in Afghanistan, I spoke to General Dan McNeill about whether Afghanistan was at the tipping point. The then-head of NATO forces didn't agree that we had reached that point, but in 2007 it was a key issue.

Last night in London, I attended a discussion involving a clutch of senior Brits about the future of Afghanistan. How different was the situation now that President Obama is redefining America's involvement in Afghanistan? Again, people were divided about how close Afghanistan has come to that tipping point. But it is a place where the Afghans seem to continue to teeter precariously and, no doubt, uncomfortably. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

It struck me that over the past two years the most pressing issues have changed not at all: civilian casualties; the exit strategy; the end-game; endemic corruption; wasted aid; Karzai's weakness; the ineffective local police force; heavy footprint/light footprint; whether there is (or, more accurately, isn't) a military solution: whether we should talk to the Taliban: the problems with Pakistan; interdicting the opium poppy producers....

We're still asking the same questions about what we are achieving, what we want to achieve, whether our aspirations are realistic, whether we should actually be there at all - and, of course, how close are we to that tipping point.

Seven years after embarking on the mission, we are still asking why? The answer is that we are there for our own security - not to bring democracy, trounce the Taliban, restore women's rights or read Osama bin-Laden his Miranda Rights. The rest of the question is whether our presence makes any real difference - whether it strengthens Afghanistan and, by extension, enhances our own security; or worse: whether it weakens the central government (because it has US approval) and damages our security by provoking the Pashtun and Pakistani fundamentalists in the FATA badlands.

Meanwhile, the view from the UK is typically, quaintly, parochial. To the Brits, the entire war is being in fought in Helmand province (a big round of applause for our Brave Boys, who are doing all the heavy lifting). The rest of Afghanistan is, well, just an unnecessary appendage. The important thing is Helmand. Win Helmand, they say, and you win the war.