An Afghan solution


Tony Blair's warning in Kabul yesterday that the security of the world is being determined in Afghanistan comes as fighting there between Nato troops and Taliban guerrillas becomes bloodier by the day. Mr Blair spoke in support of the 6,000 British troops deployed in Helmand province in the south of the country. Their commanders say they have not met such intense resistance on any mission since the Korean war.

The area is dominated by the Taliban, working in concert with local warlords financed by opium sales and using bases in neighbouring Pakistan to bolster their forces on the ground. Corruption, tribal tensions and the abiding weakness and inability of the Afghan government in Kabul compound these problems. Since this became a Nato operation last July the force has built up to 31,500 troops. Experienced observers say this is not enough to defeat the Taliban, especially when several of the Nato contingents cannot be deployed in Helmand.

Speaking in Islamabad at the weekend Mr Blair took a long view of the "war against terrorism" used to justify Nato's presence in Afghanistan. "This global extremism is an ideology that exploits grievances. So what we have to do is at the same time as we are taking on the ideology, we have to take away those elements of grievance. This took a generation to grow and it will take a generation to defeat." He announced a doubling of aid for poverty alleviation in Pakistan, including funds for moderate Islamic schools to counter the influence of more radical ones from which the Taliban has recruited.

More funds are also promised for Afghanistan. But ineffective government there outside the Kabul region means it cannot be spent effectively. Most other regions are ruled by warlords who were empowered by the original invasion by US troops in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. The 18,000 US troops still deployed have failed to find Osama bin Laden despite inflicting huge casualties on his supporters.

Underlying all these problems is Afghanistan's role as the world's largest supplier of opium, which the United Nations reckons is responsible for some 87 per cent of supply. Afghan farmers have little incentive to switch from growing it, since aid programmes offer nothing like enough alternative income. Nor do warlords have any incentive to cease their reliance on the trade.

Mr Blair is right to insist that many problems hitting British cities originate far away in this conflict. But there is much room to doubt that the problem can be solved militarily, without a much greater programme of social and political change.