Britain's most senior generals have issued a blunt warning to Downing Street that the military campaign in Afghanistan is facing a catastrophic failure, a development that could lead to an Islamist government seizing power in neighbouring Pakistan.
Amid fears that London and Washington are taking their eye off Afghanistan as they grapple with Iraq, the generals have told Number 10 that the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, headed by Hamid Karzai, would present a grave threat to the security of Britain.
'The consequences of failure in Afghanistan are far greater than in Iraq,' he said. 'If we fail in Afghanistan then Pakistan goes down. The security problems for Britain would be massively multiplied. I think you could not then stop a widening regional war that would start off in warlordism but it would become essentially a war in the end between Sunni and Shia right across the Middle East.'
Ashdown said two mistakes were being made: a lack of a co-ordinated military command because of the multinational 'hearts and minds' Nato campaign and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom offensive campaign against the Taliban. There was also insufficient civic support on, for example, providing clean water.
Ashdown warned: 'Unless we put this right, unless we have a unitary system of command, we are going to lose. The battle for this is the battle of public opinion. The polls are slipping. Once they go on the slide it is almost impossible to win it back. You can only do it with the support of the local population.