President Barack Obama’s year-end review of the Afghan war asserted cautiously that General David Petraeus’s operations are going quite well so far, which caused cynics to say that this is a 20-storey building, and we still have 10 to fall. All parties to the conflict save the Taliban perceive themselves as prisoners of an unhappy predicament. The only issue is whether some outcome can be contrived which is “just good enough”, to borrow one of the military’s favourite clichés.

Both the US and British armies enthuse about progress made in Helmand and Kandahar – markets flourishing, new schools opened, civil aid projects completed, and the Highway 1 main arterial road relatively secure. Special forces’ night raids on local Taliban leaderships have achieved impressive successes. An insider often sceptical about military operations applauds the SAS, especially, as “best of British”.

The phrase most popular among commanders is “bottom up”: having almost abandoned the attempt to empower President Hamid Karzai’s government, they are now focused upon building local institutions in spite of Kabul.

Where General Stanley McChrystal enjoyed an amicable, even close relationship with Mr Karzai, his successor Gen Petraeus has almost none. He regards the president with contempt, and is bent upon sorting out the country without much help from its leader, a doubtful proposition. Gen Petraeus’s efforts are focused upon showing sufficient progress by summer to persuade Mr Obama and the American people to stay the distance, to accept a token summer troop cut in place of beginning a wholesale withdrawal.

The towering irony about Afghanistan is that almost everyone who knows the region perceives its problems as political, and thus requiring political remedies. But, because western diplomacy seems paralysed, soldiers are left to find all the solutions.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in March this year: “US foreign policy is still dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our overseas commands. It is one thing to be able and willing to serve as emergency responders: quite another to always have to be the fire chief.”

This seems a profound and important observation. Some of the west’s finest soldiers are serving in Afghanistan; but whatever new-age gloss is put upon their role, their professional business is to fight, which must skew their vision. I have always worried that the British army’s attitude to the conflict is distorted first by its admirable “can-do” spirit, which has prompted persistent unfounded optimism; and second, by a desperate desire to be seen to win a campaign, to escape a humiliating retreat to Britain, where new cuts threaten the regiments as soon as they are no longer engaged.

However enthusiastically armies profess commitment to winning hearts and minds, finding “kinetic solutions” – killing people – is what they are chiefly structured to do. The Americans and British are doing their utmost to defeat the Taliban, and achieving considerable tactical success in limited areas. But it seems implausible this will suffice to resolve the underlying problems. An officer wrote to me recently: “There is a sense of momentum that we never had in Helmand and Kandahar this time a year ago, and if only the Afghan government would step up to the plate, we might prevail.”

But his conditional is the part that matters, and is unlikely to be fulfilled. Almost everything in Afghanistan is about tribal relationships, sands shifting constantly as Alikozai elders think themselves denied patronage conceded to Ghilzai, or different branches of the Alikozai vie for cash and favours. Yet many soldiers pay insufficient heed to this issue, and it is almost impossible to master tribal complexities in a limited tour of duty.

The CIA has a vast Afghan station of some 800 officers. Electronically gathered intelligence is good, but political intelligence remains weak. The US government appears baffled about what to do with Pakistan. Of course it would be admirable if the border could be closed to insurgents and the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) abandoned its traditional double game, aiding the Taliban.

But there seems no realistic prospect this is going to happen, that the west can either bludgeon Islamabad into compliance or exercise short-term leverage on Pakistan’s tottering institutions. US drone attacks are killing a steady stream of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in their Pakistani sanctuaries, but this is an expedient rather than a policy.

Many thoughtful westerners believe it is impossible to achieve regional progress without defusing the Kashmiri confrontation, the cause of so much mutual hatred between India and Pakistan, but there seems little will on either side to do this. Delhi regards itself as having legitimate strategic interests in Afghanistan, which under Taliban rule became a base for many terrorist incursions into India. This, in turn, feeds Pakistan’s paranoia.

The new road built with $136m of Indian aid money from the Iranian border to the Afghan heartland will enable India to ship goods by sea to Afghanistan, strengthening an important trading relationship while weakening Pakistan’s. When it is suggested to Delhi that its activism in Afghanistan is mischievous in its consequences if not intent, Indians respond that they have vital security interests that will have to be protected long after the west has folded its tents and gone home. Meanwhile, Iranian meddling in Afghanistan is becoming more noticeable and injurious to western interests.

These are among the important issues that soldiers cannot resolve, but which the political leaderships of America and its allies seem incapable of addressing. Of course military operations form a critical element in stabilisation, but I suggest that for too long soldiers have been left to do as they think best, because the politicians are baffled.

Hew Strachan, Chichele professor of the study of war at Oxford university, wrote recently that there has been a strategic default both in Iraq and Afghanistan: “The result has often been war shaped by platoon and company commanders, a series of ill-considered tactical actions where killing and casualties define success.”

Western commanders are today enthusiastic about progress in training Afghan soldiers and policemen. Yet almost all army recruits are drawn from the north of the country, and are seen as foreigners in the Pashtun south. Despite annual expenditures of $12.6bn on the security forces, desertions are still running at 18 per cent, which means recruiting an additional 25,000 men a year merely to maintain strength.

The most likely course for Afghanistan in 2011 is that the military will continue to proclaim progress; and that Mr Obama will accept a token summer troop reduction, because he is in thrall to Gen Petraeus, the most celebrated American soldier of his time, and because he fears the political cost of quitting, allowing Republicans to brand him “the man who lost the Afghan war”. The struggle will go on, simply because a lot of people have vested interests in avoiding explicit recognition of failure.

But it seems to some of us impossible that real headway can be made with a broken-backed Kabul government and regional political stagnation. For all the talk about reconciliation with the Taliban, why should they deal when they think they are winning, and when they prosper in large areas where Nato does not? I defer to no one in my respect for soldiers, but nobody should fool themselves that the Afghan war can have a happy ending as long as the military are left to run it on their own.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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