War on terror runs into Afghan sand

THE war on terror is not prospering: in an analogy with the Second World War, it might be seen as bogged down around Tobruk. In fact, it is bogged down around Iraq and, we reveal today, the situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan.

Clear-headed but apprehensive supporters of American foreign policy - among whom we count ourselves - are beginning to fear that the United States is reverting to former type: trying to fight wars at arm's length while compromising on its original principles.

When America first committed itself to the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan from two very different, but equally tyrannical, regimes, knee-jerk critics both here and abroad condemned it as a new US imperialism. In reality, the Bush/Rumsfeld doctrine represented the energetic implementation of a political phenomenon that, in this country, never progressed beyond being a limp aspiration of Robin Cook: an ethical foreign policy.

The principles were impeccable: to spread multi-party, universal-suffrage parliamentary democracy to every corner of the globe. But, from the beginning the resources were inadequate. The world's sole remaining superpower tried to do democracy on the cheap and, like all false economies, it is paying for it now.

There were never sufficient US troops committed to Iraq, and this was compounded by the decision to fire the entire Iraqi army immediately after the country was liberated. Whole swathes of the country were thinly patrolled, leaving them to become breeding grounds and sanctuaries for insurgency. That insurgency remains rampant, despite the success of the country's elections and the formation of a government in Baghdad. If all had gone to plan, the coalition should now be addressing the question of an exit strategy. But all has not gone well.

Worse still, in Afghanistan, where the assumption was of a mission accomplished, Western forces have been forced onto the defensive. The Taliban is still strong in the south, where it has linked up with rebel commander Gulbadeen Hikmatyar, while conflicting warlords, with endlessly fluctuating alliances, make the country a nightmare to deal with. Fresh allegations of American mistreatment of prisoners and insulting the Koran do not help to win hearts and minds. Now it emerges that Ministry of Defence officials are making secret plans to dispatch 5,500 British troops to this region.

That is a massive potential deployment, in terms of today's greatly reduced British Army. It would stretch public - and Labour backbench - opinion to breaking point. Although the terms of our presence in Afghanistan are quite different from Iraq, that conflict has muddied the issue and polarised opinion. What is the solution? It is for America to roll up its sleeves and pursue the war on terror with implacable resolution and increased resources. Britain has given to the optimum of our ability; we and the rest of the world have the right to expect the US to make its commitment absolute.

That also means maintaining a consistent support for democracy. But the US has truckled with Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, in a style reminiscent of the days when the Shah was "our" tyrant and Saddam Hussein a valued ally against Iran. Libya has been let off the hook, after contributing little more than rhetoric to its rehabilitation.

Saudi Arabia is tinkering with local government elections; Egypt is going further, but not much; Tunisia has rigged its election. The green shoots of democracy have prospered best in Georgia and the Ukraine, where "bottom-up" revolutions have succeeded. Most worryingly, the US has painted itself into a corner which allows the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, both nuclear powers in all but name, to thumb their noses at the west.

If the US wants to revert to realpolitik, it has the right to do so; but it should come clean about it and then the rest of us can go home. But its clear duty, before history and humanity, is to pursue the righteous course on which it has embarked with total dedication and all necessary resources to attain victory.

Prizing excellence

SCHOOL prizes have always been bones of contention. In the past, controversy usually centred on whether the award was just, with a we-was-robbed faction coalescing around the claims of a disgruntled runner-up.

But now the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) has raised a different objection: it claims too many awards are being handed out in schools. While there may be the occasional silly award, the fact that schools have returned to the principle of incentives and rewarding achievement is greatly to be welcomed.

The SSTA calls this proliferation of prizes "meritocracy gone mad". It is nothing of the sort. For decades, the progressive consensus in education banned prizes, competitive sports and any acknowledgement of attainment, stigmatising them as 'litist'. That recipe for academic stagnation is now discredited. Gifted pupils face huge disincentives to attainment, of which the most malevolent is often peer pressure. Endorsement of success by the school community, in the form of academic prizes, is a necessary counterweight.

Traditional prizes ("Oh, not a copy of Pilgrim's Progress - again!") were too often a disillusioning introduction to the limited satisfaction of success. Nowadays they should be made as attractive as possible to school pupils, but preferably while retaining some educative value. Prizes should be awarded to the most proficient pupils in each class and subject, complemented by athletics awards at school sports. And, to ensure equitable treatment of both pupils and staff, teachers should surely be banned from wearing hoods on their academic gowns on speech day.

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