The main purpose of British generals, it sometimes seems, is to say aloud the things that American generals (and British diplomats) think privately but dare not say in public. Things like: "We’re not going to win this war."
That was what Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, said last week at the end of his six-month tour in command of 16 Air Assault Brigade. His force saw a great deal of combat and lost 32 killed, but it didn’t lose any battles. Regular troops rarely lose battles against guerrillas. But there were no lasting successes either which is also typical of wars where foreign troops are fighting local guerrillas.
Carleton-Smith did not say that the foreign forces in Afghanistan will lose the war. He said that they could not deliver a "decisive military victory." The best they might do, over a period of years, would be to reduce the Taliban insurgency "to a manageable level . . . that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan Army."
This will not be news to any professional soldier who knows the conditions in Afghanistan. The question is whether it comes as a surprise to American and British politicians (including Barack Obama) who still promise "victory" in the Afghan war. Because if victory is not possible, then in the end the Afghan government will have to talk to the Taliban and negotiate a peace settlement…