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Is There an End in Sight in Afghanistan?
As the 300th British soldier dies in Afghanistan, the question uppermost on everyone's mind is 'how will this all end'
The death of the 300th member of the British armed forces represents a melancholy landmark in the eight-and-a-half-year story of the war in Afghanistan. It is a painful reminder to everyone, particularly to the families, of the cost of the war in blood - and to the 300 dead must be added five times as many injured and maimed in battle. And then there are those who will carry their inner mental scars silently for years - only for them to appear later in life.
The question uppermost now is the one asked by General David Petraeus flying over Mosul in the early days of the incursion into Iraq in 2003, "tell me how all this will end?"
The campaign in Afghanistan, even with the new plan and fresh injection of 30,000 troops under General Stanley McChrystal, is proving hard pounding. David Cameron has warned the British public to expect more casualties in the summer fighting across Helmand and Kandahar. He has said that British troops must and will stay the course, but only up to a certain point.
It is now clear that both Cameron and Barack Obama are looking to start winding down military operations from the latter half of next year, with a sharper pull-out in 2012. It would be an exaggeration to term this an exit strategy, but something is moving.
Meanwhile, the fighting goes on across the south. Only the most dewy-eyed optimists would claim that all is well, though some like Con Coughlin of the Telegraph do.
The US marines are finding it far tougher than expected to get Marjah under control - this was the main objective of their Operation Moshtarak offensive in February. After the marines went in the Taliban appear to have lain low, waited for the poppy harvest, and are now back raiding, extorting and causing general mayhem. Further up the Helmand valley they are reported to have "executed" a seven-year-old boy because he passed information to international forces.
The long-heralded major effort for the summer in returning good government and security to Kandahar and its surrounding district seems to be moving slower than first anticipated. President Hamid Karzai seems, at last, to have signed up to the plan, but getting police back into the no-go areas of the city and the outskirts could be more tricky than it sounds.
For British audiences, the need to resolve the virtual siege of Sangin in central Helmand may be more urgent. In the winter the 3 Rifles Battle Group suffered 30 killed in Sangin, almost half all British deaths throughout Afghanistan between last October and April this year. Seven have been killed there since the beginning of May. After four years of fighting in and around the little town, a junction on the main east-west drug smuggling route, there are plans to open the roads running from north and south into the town. It will involve thousands of troops, probably, and could become a priority before Kandahar - at least for the British and US marine forces in the new international Regional Command South West.
The slow progress in Sangin had fueled the growing sense of doubt in British public opinion - and the same doubts are growing in the US. The suspicion is that UK and US forces might have ended up fighting the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initially, British and international troops went to Afghanistan to rid the place of al-Qaida following 9/11 and the Taliban regime that were their hosts. Slowly it has drifted into a de facto occupation in many parts of the country - and an aim to build a new nation, with a new form of government and rule that may not be achievable in decades, if at all according to the pessimists.
Even the suggestion that Afghanistan, according to a recent commercial survey, may be sitting on £2tn worth of minerals has been hardly conducive to peace - with many fearing it will actually encourage more factional fighting to get hold of the spoils. The new term, at least in connection with Afghanistan, in Washington and London is "managing expectations". For Obama and Cameron, it is now a question of getting enough security, enough good governance and enough reconciliation with the Taliban before British and US forces can begin the slow trickle home from next summer.
But perhaps an even bigger strategic headache is being created to the south in Pakistan, where US drone attacks are fueling local resentment and causing growing flows of refugees. The UN's Philip Alston has condemned the "PlayStation mentality" of the drone pilots who usually operate from Colorado, and whose operations have led to the death of more than 600 civilians in northern Pakistan over the past year. Zubeida Malik of the BBC reports that for the first time many Pakistanis see the US as a bigger threat to their country than India.