| 1.6°C Dublin

Tough Afghan history lesson

ACCORDING to assorted fruitcakes, the world will end -- again -- in 2015, the previous prediction of May 21 having been something of a red herring as apocalypses go.

Coincidentally, 2015 is also the target for the complete withdrawal of Coalition forces from Afghanistan.

If I were a betting man, I'd be inclined to put money on the end of the world coming first.

Panorama reporter John Ware's film Afghanistan: War Without End? was current affairs television at its most sombre and serious, and consequently bleakly, deeply dispiriting.

This was a catalogue of opportunities lost, lessons unlearned, mistakes compounded and intelligence ignored. In the wake of 9/11, said Ware, with 3,000 people dead, "it was inevitable America would invade Afghanistan".

It was also, said a former CIA man, exactly what Osama Bin Laden wanted: to lure the US into a costly, drawn-out conflict and then grind down their forces, just he had during the Soviet invasion.

But as Ware's film, which was peppered with high-profile contributors who were inside the tent at the time, revealed, it didn't have to be that way.

A war which has lasted longer than America's involvement in Vietnam and cost $12 billion to finance could easily have been avoided.

Though Bush promised to "unleash holy hell" on Bin Laden after 9/11, the real plan was for "war lite".

There would be no heavy artillery or massive ground force invasion; with 30 CIA operatives running the show, the plan was to get in and out quickly and cheaply, and with the minimum of fuss. And for a short time it seemed to be working.

The Taliban were defeated with comparative ease. Bin Laden and his closest associates vanished into a network of underground caves and then slipped across the border to Pakistan with ease.

"Four months after 9/11," said Ware, "there was a feeling in Washington of mission accomplished."

Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy US defence secretary, believes Washington should have used "the early, relatively quiet period" to enter into discussions with the Taliban.

But defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had no interest in stabilising or restructuring Afghanistan, refused out of hand.

He was content to install Hamid Karzai as president and leave things to simmer.

Bush's lapdog Tony Blair, meanwhile, saw his "restructuring mission" in terms of imposing Western-Christian values on a chaotic, medieval society where corruption and paranoia (not least on the part of Karzai) were rife, and drugs were the main currency.

Former minister of state Kim Howells recalled arriving in the Helmand region, in which British troops had been involved in some of the fiercest fighting seen in half a century, and asking a US Army veteran how to make sense of the place.

"Watch The Sopranos," came the answer.

Eighteen months after 9/11, Taliban gunmen were coming back across the border from Pakistan.

US generals bombarded Rumsfeld with urgent cables warning that the time bomb had started ticking again.

But by then Rumsfeld, Bush and Blair had turned their eyes on Iraq, which one contributor called "the single biggest mistake" of the whole misadventure.

The war that was supposed to be done and dusted in a matter of months rumbles on, with Coalition troops pinned down in what Ware strikingly described as "a series of Alamos".

With Bin Laden dead, Washington has at last begun to talk to the Taliban, while at the same time continuing to hunt down its leaders.

There was an overwhelming sense in Ware's film that it's all too little too late.

The original strategy for Afghanistan, said a UN representative here, had been to create a kind of Belgium of the Middle East "in just three years". But this timeline has had to be recalibrated:

"Our expectations changed from Belgium in three years to Bangladesh in 30."

If the world survives the next scheduled doomsday in four years' time, expect the timeline to have lengthened again.

Afghanistan: War without end? ****