The military strategy in Afghanistan is seriously flawed and is doomed to failure without major adjustments, the outgoing head of the UN there has warned.
Kai Eide, who will stand down as UN Special Representative in March, was withering in his assessment of the Afghan surge recently set in motion by President Obama. He warned that the military focus was at the expense of a "meaningful, Afghan-led political strategy" and that Western troops and governments had left Afghans feeling that they faced "cultural invasion".
Speaking to The Times before today's conference on Afghanistan, he said that the international community must stop operating according to "strategies and decisions that are taken far away from Afghanistan".
"Very unfortunately, the political strategy has become an appendix to the military strategy. The strategy has to be demilitarised - a political strategy with a military component."
Mr Eide added that he supported the arrival of more US and Nato troops but that they had to be used to train Afghan forces. He said that the latter were better than any international forces because Westerners still struggled to understand the sensitivities of the country.
He expressed deep concern at the tactical approach of British and other Western troops, which aimed to remove the Taleban from an area, hold it and then develop local infrastructure and security forces. "The so-called clear, hold, build military strategy has serious flaws," he said.
"First of all, we are not able to ‘clear' when our opponents are insurgents one day and a normal inhabitant of a village the next day. We are not able to ‘hold' because it takes time to train and put in place police and sub-national governance.
"And we are not able to ‘build' because we cannot expect civilian development agencies to come into what they feel is a military campaign."
Mr Eide's tenure as Special Representative has been controversial. He was accused by his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, of effectively colluding with President Karzai during last year's elections, which were marred by allegations of vote-rigging on a massive scale. Mr Galbraith was dismissed but several senior political advisers to the UN mission in Kabul resigned over the episode.
However, his views on the West's tactics in Afghanistan will find support among many civilian agencies and NGOs working there. Eight aid agencies, including Oxfam, Afghanaid and CARE International, issued a warning this week that military-led aid undermined long-term aid work and endangered both aid workers and civilians.
Aid agencies have already expressed alarm at a Tory plan to create a stabilisation brigade within the British Army to undertake aid work for the military.
Mr Eide said that his criticism went beyond issues such as civilian casualties and night raids, both of which have sparked angry protests in Afghanistan. "This is part of a much wider problem and that is the need for the international community to show respect for Afghanistan's religion, culture and traditions. On this I think we have failed over the last few years.
"We have sometimes treated Afghanistan as a no man's land where strategies have been formulated far away, decisions have been made far away, without sufficient consultation."
Afghans felt culturally besieged, he said. "Often we operate in a way where Afghans feel there is an invasion going on, in terms of values and cultures that go beyond how our military forces operate. They do not feel we give them the space to govern their own society."
Mr Eide expressed scepticism at the significance of a recent BBC poll, seized upon by Western political and military leaders, which suggested that support for Western forces in Afghanistan was growing. "I believe we should be very sober in assessing those polls. The problems that we face with regard to security, delivering services and economic development are enormous and I believe if we allow ourselves to become complacent because of one opinion poll we will be making a serous mistake.
"We must guard against an impression that what we have done up to now is the right recipe," he said. "I think serious adjustments are necessary."
Among those adjustments should be an end to focusing aid money on the violent southern provinces, he said. "Why is the insurgency spreading? One of the most prominent reasons is that there has been an inequitable distribution of resources."
He added: "If we are to develop the Afghan economy we have to focus resources where the growth centres are. These are not in the south where the conflict is raging.
"We cannot continue with small, fragmented governance efforts implemented by each donor country separately in the province where they are located. We have to have a comprehensive national plan."
As for the controversy surrounding Mr Karzai's re-election, Mr Eide said he had "absolutely no regrets" about the handling of the poll.