Kenny Farquharson: Lost prize in fight for Afghan hearts

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I HAVE three main memories of Major-General Andrew Mackay from the time I spent embedded with 52 Brigade of the British Army in Afghanistan last year.

The first is of sitting next to him in an Apache helicopter as it swooped fast and low over the Taleban-controlled Helmand desert, hugging the contours of the dunes to reduce the chances of being hit by enemy fire. As I tried not to throw up, Mackay relaxed with a paperback of the latest Kate Atkinson novel.

The second is of accompanying him on a nerve-jangling wander down the main street of Musa Qala, the dusty town that was formerly a Taleban stronghold, being stared at by expressionless 14-year-olds idly cradling AK-47s on their knees. One of Mackay's fellow officers later confided that I'd been right to be afraid – the afternoon stroll without full back-up had been madness.

The third memory is of Mackay sitting cross-legged on an ornate carpet eating goat stew with the Musa Qala shura – the town's tribal elders. The atmosphere was tense, but I was struck by the judicious and respectful way he dealt with their questions and concerns. There was clearly mutual respect at work here. The elders, many of them distrustful of the British presence, nevertheless knew this was a man they could deal with.

How sad then, that a crucial job in Afghanistan that requires exactly the kind of personal and professional skills Mackay possesses, and for which he had been sounded out by no less a figure than US General David Petraeus, will now be done by somebody else. The job Petraeus discussed with Mackay on a private visit to Edinburgh last month was to lead the effort to "reconcile" key elements of the Taleban with the western-backed government in Kabul. However appealing that job was to Mackay – and my understanding is he thought it was a cracker – he had come to the end of his tether with the army and he had to say no.

When the news broke last week that Mackay had resigned his position as the army's top man in Scotland, I wasn't surprised. After spending a week with him in Helmand 18 months ago, I'd kept in touch and it had become clear to me that his frustration with Whitehall's handling of the conflict was always going to result in a parting of the ways.

When Mackay had returned to Scotland after his posting, he had sent the MoD the standard debriefing report, which is usually a dull document summarising the events of the tour. Mackay's, by all accounts, was a scorching criticism of numerous aspects of the British operation in Helmand – especially the capacity of the military to spend money on winning hearts and minds as well as battles. Colleagues had advised him that, for the good of his career, he should tone it down, but he delivered it anyway.

Mackay's philosophy was that "the population is the prize". The task was to gain the consent of the Afghan people – they may not like the British presence, but they sure as hell didn't want the Taleban back in charge. So his job as British commander in Helmand was as much about building roads, schools, mosques and medical centres, about agriculture and employment, as about killing insurgents.

In military jargon it was "non-kinetic" soldiering, and it was the future. This was why he was so dismayed about the lack of co-ordination between the military, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development – all of which operated under their own auspices. Mackay looked enviously at the freedom and resources enjoyed by his American military colleagues and asked difficult questions about why the British – supposedly the country with the historical track record in nation-building – were lagging behind.

What was the point of retaking Musa Qala from the Taleban if the necessary aid to transform the town arrived not in a deluge but in a trickle? And what was the point of regarding all Taleban leaders as equally worthy of a bullet in the head when, as Mackay put it, "we're at risk of killing the Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness of the Taleban"? The MoD response to all these concerns, it seems, was not sufficiently positive for him to stay on.

The creation of this new job is a sign that the Mackay approach is informing the way both the British and US forces go about their business in Afghanistan today. The new US commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal, recently said: "The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed; it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence." But doubts remain as to whether there are enough US or UK forces in Afghanistan to truly make enough of a difference.

My understanding is that Mackay has not yet decided whether to go public with his criticisms when he finally leaves the service next month. Much will depend on what he decides to do next – contrary to some reports, he does not have a job already lined up.

I hope he decides to have his say. British troops are going to be in Afghanistan for many years yet. It's right that we are there, keeping at bay an odious sect that would once again turn Afghanistan into an exporter of worldwide jihad. It's important that we do not weaken and that resources are equal to the task – especially at a time when every penny of taxpayers' money is coming under scrutiny. It's also important that the work done in Afghanistan in our name is intellectually coherent, aimed squarely at the daunting but honourable task of improving the lives of the Afghan people and winning their consent. After all, the people – as someone once said, someone who sadly is no longer going to be part of this effort – are the prize.