President Obama has announced sweeping reductions in the number of American forces in Afghanistan. Britain too is slowly reducing the number of its forces in the country and plans to stop all combat operations by the beginning of 2015. But talks are already underway with the Taliban against whom we are fighting. So should that fighting stop now?

The United States has over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The numbers were increased back in 2009 when President Obama agreed to a ‘surge’ strategy that involved using more military power to clear the Taliban out of areas of the country where they had gained control. The strategy was one of ‘clear/hold/build’: clear out the Taliban from a region, hold it, and help build there a new society which would be immune to future Taliban takeover and be kept secure by the country’s own security forces which America and its allies would train up for the task. This strategy would also thwart America’s real enemy, al-Qaeda, in its attempt to re-establish a base in the country.

This week the president said in a televised address to the American people: 'Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment. We are meeting our goals.' As a result he committed himself to withdrawing 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by September 2012 at the latest. The first five thousand will go home next month and a further five thousand by the end of this year.

However, this decision has been met with deep scepticism by many of the top American military in Afghanistan who fear the reduction could jeopardise the success of the campaign against the Taliban, especially over the summer when much of the fighting happens. The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, urged a much smaller reduction as did the retiring defence secretary, Robert Gates. It has been reported that General Petraeus refused to give a public endorsement of the decision.

Some commentators and military figures suspect that the timing of the troop withdrawals has more to do with electoral arithmetic than with military sense. The next US presidential election is in November 2012 and the President clearly wants to be able to say during the campaign that America’s involvement in a war which has declining public support in the US is coming to an end.

Here, the former chief of the defence staff, Lord Stirrup, voiced this concern that electoral calculations are taking precedence over military considerations and the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt, said the decision was 'risky'. But it’s not just the American military that seems to be at odds with its political masters: there are suggestions of the same thing in Britain too.

The British Government plans to bring about 450 troops home soon and the National Security Council is expected to consider how quickly others could be brought back. But the government is insistent that our own combat operations will cease at the beginning of 2015, by which time it is hoped that Afghanistan’s own 300,000 security forces will be in a position to take over. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said there are 'no ifs and buts' about this commitment. (2015 is due to be an election year here.) Yet the head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, has suggested that this timetable could be conditional on the situation on the ground at the time. To some commentators, it seems that the British military may be as much at odds with its government as the American military is with its government.

Part of the problem here may lie in some uncertainty about what we are actually trying to achieve in Afghanistan. The initial invasion in 2001 was a response to the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11: al-Qaeda had enjoyed a safe haven in Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule. Al-Qaeda was driven out of the country, but many think America and its allies then made serious miscalculations in its strategy.

Michael Semple, formerly deputy to the EU’s special representative to Afghanistan in 2001, argues that the allies should have realised then that the Taliban, rather than being part of some global conspiracy against the West who therefore had to be fought as part of the so-called ‘war on Terror’, were in fact just one side in a civil war within Afghanistan. Instead of fighting them, America and its allies should have sought to involve them in the creation of a new order in the country. That view is gaining credence once more.

It is now almost universally accepted that the Taliban cannot be defeated and that any long-term stability for Afghanistan will have to involve them in the country’s future government. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, accepts this and that is why talks are already underway with the Taliban. William Hague has said that Britain is 'connected' to those talks.

But, many people are asking, if the aim is to come to an agreement with the Taliban, why are we still fighting them?

One answer might be that while Afghanistan’s own forces are still far from being at full strength it is necessary for America and its allies to keep up the military pressure in order to negotiate with the Taliban from strength. But if that is the strategy, say sceptics, then it makes no sense to have an arbitrary cut-off point of 2015 for combat operations. For if Afghanistan’s own forces don’t turn out to be up to taking over the job by that date, then we shall be walking away from a country in which the Taliban have regained the upper hand.

For the British Government a much more straightforward question is likely to need answering in the coming months: if we know already that the Taliban have to be reconciled rather than beaten, how can it be justifiable to go on risking a single British life in the ‘war’ against them?

What’s your view?

  • Do you support or not President Obama’s decision to cut US troops in Afghanistan?
  • Do you think the decision was made primarily for military or electoral reasons?
  • Should Britain be pulling more of its own troops out, or not?
  • Do you think it is right or not to be talking to the Taliban?
  • If we are talking to them, do you think the fighting should stop now or not?
  • And overall, do you think western policy in Afghanistan justifies risking the lives of British troops in the country?
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