For years now, Afghanistan policy has been governed by a simple question: Do the unknown costs of leaving Afghanistan trump the known costs of staying in Afghanistan? Until now the answer, at least officially, has always been Yes. But this is not a static question. The known price of remaining in Afghanistan increases all the time; the unknown consequences of withdrawal remain, at best, constant. Indeed, in as much as al-Qaeda’s Afghan capability has been reduced, the costs of withdrawal may in fact be less than once they were.
That scarcely means an Afghanistan without NATO troops is going to be a grand place. Nevertheless, it is clear that the American-led presence in Afghanistan is not working to prudce a sustainable political or military solution. At some point too the war must be subject to the laws of diminishing returns. Each additional billion spent in Afghanistan produces less. The war, whatever its merits, is increasingly unproductive and sunk costs can’t justify further expenditure forever.
The public is ahead of politicians in London and Washington. They ask a simple question: What are we achieving in Afghanistan? The best available answer is indequate: Preventing it from becoming even worse. This is an unsustainable course.
More than 400 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan; the six deaths last week should concentrate minds in Whitehall. If the public could see signs of progress or if ministers could plot a clear course explaining why Afghanistan is worth it then matters might be different. But the public sees few signs of progress and ministers can’t explain why more of the same is the best that can be hoped for when existing policy seems so unproductive. "It isn’t working but we have to do more of the same" is not a great sales-pitch. Nor is it a convincing strategy.
The apparent massacre of Afghan villagers by an American soldier can only make matters worse. War is a gruesome business in which ghaslty things happen. The wonder is not that these things happen but that they have become so relatively rare. It is chilling but no-one, surely, can be surprised that something like this has happened.
Its consequences, however, seem likely to be severe and not just in Afghanistan but in the United States too. It must make managing Afghanistan more difficult; it must also increase the sense, already widespread in America, that this has become a futile endeavour. The horror and senselessness of the act magnifies the frustrations and futility of the Afghan mission.
Progress? What progress? And towards what aim anyway? For how much longer can governments hold the "it could be worse" line when it’s plainly pretty bad already?
And since we are inching towards a managed withdrawal anyway without having achieved the goals the west set for itself, each additional life lost and each additional pound or dollar spent in Afghanistan can only increase the dreary sense of pointlessness that presently afflicts the Afghan mission. What’s it all about? Prime Ministers and Presidents need a better answer than they’re giving right now.