Afghanistan: the elephant in the room

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The reason British troops are in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the safety of the British people and even less to do with the security of the world.

Instead it has everything to do with paying the "blood price" for the "special relationship" with the US, an unequal relationship that obsesses politicians.

The despatch of further British troops to Afghanistan in 2006 was accompanied by defence secretary John Reid's pious hope that they might not have to fire a shot during their three-year mission. We are now in the fourth year with no end in sight and millions of shots have been fired.

When the troops found that they were inevitably involved in fierce fighting, the government did its best to keep it secret. Only the complaints of the troops themselves, to their families and friends and through their blogs, finally forced the government to admit that the situation was actually getting worse.

Labour has defended involvement in a number of different ways at different times. We have been told the war was to get Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida. Then it was defended as a progressive cause, bringing democracy, development and women's rights to Afghanistan. This justification has completely collapsed as the reality of rigged elections, government corruption and involvement in the opium trade and the continued oppression of women under Karzai has become common knowledge. We are now back to the justification that the war is necessary to counter the threat of terrorism in Britain.

The motives behind the war were clearly indefensible. Their various justifications have collapsed and the fallback position has become support for "our boys" because they are in danger. Obviously this requires people not asking who had put them in danger in the first place and why. This only works though if the casualty rate can be kept down and the realities of the fighting can be kept out of the media.

While the support for "our boys" is a genuine popular sentiment, it is not the same as support for the war. Labour made cynical use of it with welcome-home parades and the introduction of the Elizabeth Cross for grieving families. Popular concern for the troops has actually been turned into a way of keeping them in danger, an astonishing propaganda sleight of hand.

A leaked CIA memorandum earlier this year revealed US concern about the lack of support for the Afghan war throughout Europe. They were particularly concerned that "a spike in casualties" might serve as "a tipping point" with popular hostility turning from "passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal". And more casualties are coming.

At the moment the British casualty rate is higher than that of the US. In March, Kim Sengupta reported in the Independent that a company of the Coldstream Guards, out of 130 men, had suffered 35 casualties, including four fatalities, four double amputees and two single amputees (injuries that result in amputation, blinding, brain damage, etc are known as "life changing" injuries in the military). He reported a sergeant telling him that he had had "young lads pleading that they didn't want to go out on patrol".

This is not a war that is being won. Understandably, one of the troops' complaints is having to do photo calls for visiting politicians, with shaking hands with Gordon Brown regarded as particularly offensive.

With the battle for Kandahar beginning to get under way, it is very likely that reality will break down the wall of media complicity and that the CIA's feared "tipping point" will be reached.