War in Afghanistan cannot be won, British commander Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith warns


Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said the British public should not expect “a decisive military victory” and that he believed groups of insurgents would still be at large after troops pulled out.

n June, he claimed that British forces had reached a “tipping point” against a weakened Taliban after their leadership was “decapitated”.

But on Sunday the army officer said it was time to lower expectations and focus on reducing the conflict to a level which could be managed by the Afghan army.

Brig Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade – which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan – said talking to the Taliban could be an important part of that process.

He insisted his forces had “taken the sting out” of the Taliban for 2008 as winter and the colder weather approaches, but warned that many of the fighters would return in May or June.

He said British forces had killed six important Taliban commanders and delivered a vast turbine to Kajaki dam to significantly bolster electricity supplies.

However, he told a Sunday newspaper: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.

“We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency… I don’t think we should expect that when we go, there won’t be roaming bands of armed men in this part of the world.

“That would be unrealistic.”

Brig Carleton-Smith, who took the unusual step last month of calling for 4,000 more troops, said the goal should be to find a non-violent resolution.

“We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of a gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” he said.

“If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this.”

“That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman defended the brigadier’s comments and said the aim was to provide a secure infrastructure for the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army.

“We have always said there is no military solution in Afghanistan. Insurgencies are ultimately solved at the political level, not by military means alone,” the spokesman said.

“We are not looking for a total military victory, it is much wider than that, improving the infrastructure to alllow the country to move forward without the need for a total defeat of the Taliban.

“We fully support President Karzai’s efforts to bring disaffected Afghans into society’s mainstream with his proviso that they renounce violence and accept Afghanistan’s constitution.”

Joining the debate about how long troops will stay in Afghanistan, Brig Carleton-Smith said he expected tactical military responsibility to be handed over to the Afghan government within five years.

Defence Secretary Des Browne has already warned it will take years to establish a stable democracy and told a think-tank in Washington in July that it would be a “longer haul” than Iraq.

Last week, the British ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, was linked to disparaging remarks about the role of international troops in Afghanistan.

A French newspaper printed what it claimed was a leaked memo which quoted Sir Sherard as saying that foreign forces were “slowing down and complicating and eventual end to the crisis”.

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