Page last updated at 23:52 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 00:52 UK

Can the US commit to Afghanistan?

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor

John Simpson outside Kabul
John Simpson has been reporting from Afghanistan for nearly 30 years

With a resurgent Taliban, doubts about the presidential election and a lack of economic progress, the US is undertaking a new strategy in what appears to be a final attempt to solve some of Afghanistan's most intransigent problems.

The man leading the military effort, General Stanley McChrystal, made his name in special forces. He is now being asked to turn his talents to counter-insurgency.

We get to know each other on a helicopter ride to Sarobi, a short hop from Kabul, but the scene of much brutality over the years.

Nowadays the French Foreign Legion is in charge there, and the general is quick to make friends, telling the French commander that he grew up as a big admirer of the Legion.

Litany of complaints

The general mocks his own deficiencies in the French language, and congratulates the commander on the enthusiasm of the French soldiers.

But he is honest enough to accept responsibility on behalf of the Americans for everything not having gone to plan.

General Stanley McChrystal
General McChrystal admits that mistakes have been made

"In 2001 there were expectations that we would keep the Taliban out forever, and expectations of development, expectations of governance that we haven't been able to meet," he says.

In an open meeting with local dignitaries and tribal elders, General McChrystal listens to what has, no doubt, become a familiar litany of complaints.

There is a lack of proper roads in the Sarobi district, few if any schools, little evidence of reconstruction.

The greatest cause of anguish among Afghan civilians since Nato troops arrived is the large number of civilian casualties of aerial bombardment.

In the most recent major incident nearly a hundred people were killed when a Nato plane attacked two hijacked petrol tankers.

"I think we're seeing some really positive steps on this," he tells me afterwards.

"If you look at what's happening in Helmand or Kandahar, the outcome in terms of casualties to civilians is drastically lower than they might have been had not the force used the level of responsibility that I'm proud that they did."

BBC Radio 4, Thursday 10 September, 0900 BST and 2130 BST
Or listen via the BBC iPlayer

General McChrystal takes a brief stroll up the main street of the town, chatting with local traders, accepting the gift of a large piece of freshly baked bread - and all without body armour or combat helmet.

It is a sign of the way he wants the Nato mission to be perceived from now on: a joint project between Americans and their allies, and the Afghans; a mission where development is as important as military intervention.

Eye off the ball

I suggest to him that this might be all a bit too late, that there is a perception in many countries in the West that the war is being lost.

"I don't think so," he responds.

"I'm on record as saying the situation is serious, and we need to turn the momentum of the enemy. We can do that. The Afghan people don't like the Taliban, so we need to correct some of the ways we operated in the past and show the kind of resolve and imagination to do this right."

US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry
US ambassador Eikenberry says there is a lot of work to be done

And that means widening the focus beyond Afghanistan.

American leaders have acknowledged for several years that they took their eye off the ball when it came to what is now universally referred to as the Taliban "sanctuary" in Pakistan.

After the American invasion, they believe, the Taliban leadership disappeared into the mountains that divide the two countries, and have been pulling strings there ever since.

"We tended to discount the impact of what that sanctuary might be," says Karl Eikenberry, the civilian half of the American double-act in Kabul.

A former general who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Mr Eikenberry is now back as US ambassador in Kabul.

"This is a threat that sits both sides of the border," he continues. "It's a regional challenge that we're facing."

We have a lot of work to do, but I know we all look forward to continuing our long-term commitment to the people of Afghanistan
Karl Eikenberry

US ambassador in Kabul

Karl Eikenberry is the diplomatic face of the new strategy in Afghanistan.

"Stan McChrystal and I would have very few disagreements about strategic goals here," he tells me.

"A very important consideration is the full integration of our civil and military efforts.

"We have a lot of work to do, but I know we all look forward to continuing our long-term commitment to the people of Afghanistan."

That last phrase is a telling one, because it probably spells the difference between success and failure in Afghanistan.

More and more questions are being asked about the value of the West's intervention, and mentions of withdrawal are becoming more frequent in the light of recent mounting casualties.

The Americans in charge on the ground know that only a long-term commitment on their part can draw support away from the Taliban.

In a place like Afghanistan the only way to win is if you are prepared to play the long game. It is hopeless to look for quick results. This is Malaya or Northern Ireland all over again.

Simpson in Afghanistan is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 10 September at 0900 BST and again at 2130 BST. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer.

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