US plans to turn the course of the Afghan war with a large-scale operation to secure Kandahar risk driving more people into the arms of the insurgents, a senior United Nations official has warned.
Richard Barrett, who heads a UN team tracking the Taliban and al-Qaeda, also said it was nonsense to suggest the war in Afghanistan was protecting Britain from terrorism.
The critique of western strategy delivered by Mr Barrett, a former UK counter-terrorism chief, will sharpen the dilemma faced by David Cameron, the prime minister. The British government wants to reconcile its commitment to Afghanistan with its pledges to deal with a large budget deficit.
Mr Barrett’s comments underline the concerns shared by many western and UN officials about the counter-insurgency strategy of General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato commander in Afghanistan. The scale and complexity of the approach was underlined last week when Gen McChrystal announced a delay in the planned operation to secure Kandahar city, the Taliban’s spiritual home.
Gen McChrystal said Nato would take a “more deliberate” approach towards Kandahar because it was learning lessons from its operation in the town of Marjah, the Taliban stronghold in central Helmand that was cleared by alliance troops in February.
But Mr Barrett warned that deploying more troops risked sparking more conflict in previously calm areas. “Putting more troops in is in danger of making things worse . . . If you push troops into these areas, then clearly they are no longer going to be quiet,” he said. “This idea that they can clear up Kandahar, take control of Kandahar, and that would really weaken the Taliban, I think it’s mistaken.
“The US cannot be seen to lose a big, well advertised operation as planned for Kandahar,” he said. “It would be very difficult to recover from such a setback . . . It’s altogether on a different scale from Marjah. Gen McChrystal has to make the objectives achievable without looking as if he has already retreated from his original plan because it was beyond him. I think he got a bit carried away and over-optimistic, ambitious.”
Mr Barrett noted that Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, had been “notably lukewarm about the whole Kandahar thing”.
US officials hope the Kandahar operation will force the Taliban on to the defensive, allowing Mr Karzai to negotiate some form of political settlement that would allow an exit for the 140,000 western troops now in the country.
But Mr Barrett said Afghanistan’s western allies lacked a coherent approach for ending the conflict. “I don’t think western states have a clear policy; they don’t know, they just don’t know, what to do,” he said.
Mr Barrett, who formerly headed counter-terrorism for the Secret Intelligence Service, dismissed the argument advanced by British ministers that the presence of 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan would reduce the threat to the UK. “That’s complete rubbish. I’ve never heard such nonsense,” he said, warning that the presence of foreign troops risked inflaming anti-western sentiment among British Muslim communities.
“I’m quite sure if there were no foreign troops in Afghanistan there’d be less agitation in Leeds, or wherever, about Pakistanis extremely upset, or suspicious about what western intentions are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”