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The latest Afghan killings will speed up UK troop withdrawals

The killing of 6 British soldiers in Helmand-Kandahar this week will accelerate the timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, whatever the MOD may say to the contrary. The UK government was already committed to bring back home 1,000 of the 9,500 UK troops (excluding special forces) stationed there by the end of this year and to conclude all British involvement in a combat role by 2014. What will contribute to a faster draw-down is growing war weariness among the public, budget pressures, and a belief among the military that the Taliban have been significantly weakened over the last 2 years. However, the countervailing arguments – that the troops will leave behind a country still stricken by massive corruption, still excessively reliant on heroin production, and still dependent on huge inflows of foreign aid – cannot be swept aside.

The stumbling blocks remain uncertainty about the adequacy of a post-withdrawal Afghan army, the manifest corruptness of the Afghan police often linked with human rights abuses, and Karzai’s intransigence in insisting that night raids against suspected mid-level Taliban commanders be stopped and that prisoners held by the US be handed over to Afghan control. What is paradoxical about this latter stand-off is that the Americans are determined to maintain the night raids because they have killed a lot of Taliban, but they are the wrong Taliban: they are the Taliban commanders who were associates of Mullah Omar and might now have agreed to negotiate a settlement, which the US has been trying to set up for most of the past year. But having killed them, they are being replaced by younger more jihadist leaders using more violent tactics and strongly opposed to any deal.

At the same time the US needs Pakistan when their relations are almost at an all-time low – over the assassination of bin Laden, the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers at a frontier post in November, and the relentless rise in drone-delivered civilian deaths. But Pakistan’s assistance is still needed to get the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani networks to talks, to do more on counter-terrorism, and to allow drones to keep flying in its tribal areas. On its side, the Pakistani army still needs US aid, big time.

These are all serious unresolved tensions, but perhaps the real game-changer is that even the strongest advocates of the Nato-led Afghan mission now believe that nothing can now usefully be achieved by foreign troops who continue to suffer exposure and casualties on the front line.

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