There are several pre-conditions for waging a successful war and they include: a credible wartime leader backed by a united Cabinet and a strong government, favourable domestic public opinion and positive support from the mass media.

In addition, there must be a clear statement of war aims, a rough time frame for the commitment, an affordable budget, a casualty tolerance level and an exit strategy.

On all of the above criteria, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is failing woefully with the war in Afghanistan. His weak hold on the premiership, the rising public contempt for the political classes, the explosion in unemployment to 2.38 million and the gathering swine flu toll is combining to unravel Britain’s commitment at a remarkable speed.

This week’s funerals of the latest casualties has provoked an angry public debate about the war, frequently expressed in the simplest terms: “What on earth are we doing there?”

A total of 184 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, more than died in Iraq. In the past two weeks 15 soldiers have lost their lives, eight in a single day.

The public grief — which has been remarkable considering Old Blighty’s reputation for the stiff-upper-lip — has been used cynically by the Government, the military and sections of the media to drum up pro-war propaganda.

Thus The Sun headline read: “OUR BOYS” while, at the other end of the spectrum, The Independent said: “This bloody war.”

But the war party is on the ropes. A Guardian/BBC Newsnight poll this week found that 56 per cent of people want troops to pull out by the end of the year while a Populus poll for ITV’s News At Ten program showed that almost three in five people (59 per cent) believe British troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan while only 36 per cent think they should stay.

At question time in the Commons Brown blustered unconvincingly that “we are right to be in Afghanistan and we have the strongest possible plan” — without revealing what it was.

Launched eight years ago as an operation to smash al-Qaeda and track down Osama bin Laden, this US-led venture then evolved into a freedom and democracy crusade which included smashing the opium industry and freeing the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban’s barbarous oppression.

But al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue to flourish, Bin Laden remains at large, opium production is booming and financing the warlords and the Taliban and respected Afghan MP Malalai Joya argues the position of women is now worse than under the Taliban.

Margaret Owen, director of Widows for Peace through Democracy, called for a dramatic rethink when she said this week: “On behalf of the millions of Afghan widows and wives of the missing, whose numbers continue to rise in consequence of NATO operations, we plead for this senseless folly to stop.

“It is estimated that there are now over 2 million widows in Afghanistan, struggling to survive and care for fatherless children, the wounded, the amputees, the sick, traumatised and elderly. Far from liberating women from Taliban oppression, we are now making things much worse for the next generation.”

The US, Britain, NATO and Australia are attempting to prevail where 300,000 troops of the Soviet Union’s Red Army failed. Canada and the Netherlands have already announced plans to pull out and others will follow.

As The Guardian’s former editor Peter Preston bleakly noted: “Our soldiers are dying in a false, hopeless war,” and concluded: “Inescapably, the long overdue moment to stop has arrived — because none of the reasons for ploughing on makes the slightest sense.”

But sense is not something that is controlling events in Afghanistan today. Many more lives will be lost — most of them Afghans — before this military madness is brought to an end, and hard-headed diplomacy involving Iran, Pakistan, China and India prevails.