Monday, July 27, 2009
By David Miliband, UK Foreign Secretary
In recent weeks the debate about Afghanistan has centred on the UK military’s tactics and resources. The bravery and commitment of our forces has been remarkable, and the toll of death and injury from recent operations heavy. But the result is 80,000 to 100,000 Afghans secure from Taliban threats and violence, and able to vote in the Afghan elections on August 20.
We committed to this mission for one reason: to deny al-Qaeda a base from which to attack the world. People support this and understand that in the 1990s the Taliban authority in Afghanistan provided a convenient incubator for al-Qaeda. But people now want to know whether and how we can succeed. We can. This is how.
The insurgency we face is more complex than a single “Taliban”. Different groups operate in different areas across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Co-operation is opportunistic and tactical. The southern Afghan insurgency, led by members of the former Taliban government, has the most fighters and is the best organised. In the east and in Pakistan there are a variety of other factions, including ones allied to al-Qaeda.
Afghans are drawn into the insurgency for different reasons. There are soldiers paid $10 a day, narco-traffickers who want safe passage for their drugs, and those who fear the Taliban will win and so hedge their bets.
The insurgency has proved resilient, adaptable and deadly. But its weaknesses are also clear. It is a wide but shallow coalition of convenience. It is deeply unpopular: only 8 per cent of Afghans say they want the Taliban back. Its support base is limited to Pashtun areas. And it cannot take and hold territory for long against conventional forces. By the end of 2011 there will be more than 134,000 members of the Afghan army. Alongside them will be 97,000 Afghan police.
General Stanley McChrystal, head of the Nato force in Afghanistan, has explained that success is measured not by the number of Taliban killed, but the number of Afghans protected. Success against the insurgency requires legitimate local politics, formal and informal.
That explains the importance of credible elections next month. The decisions of the next Afghan government will be key. There are three major political challenges for it to address: it must divide the insurgency through the reconciliation and reintegration of former Taliban; it must reassure and support the Afghan population at large; and it must develop a constructive dialogue with Afghanistan’s neighbours.
First, Afghanistan needs a political strategy to dismantle the insurgency’s power base. Afghans need effective governors and district leaders and local governance that works with the grain of tribal structures and history. An inclusive political settlement must bring in conservative Pashtuns and separate them from the hardline Taliban, who must be pursued relentlessly.
The reintegration of former Taliban requires offering bigger incentives to switch sides and stay out of trouble, alongside tougher action against those who refuse. There are precedents: former enemies now work together in the Afghan government; former Taliban sit in the parliament.
At a local level, this means giving village elders the confidence to speak out against the Taliban. Military pressure has an important role to play – Afghans must know that they will be protected from the insurgents if they side with the government.
So the second imperative is that Nato must support the Afghan government in showing the people that they will not be deserted to Taliban retribution. We are not fighting in Afghanistan because girls were not allowed to go to school, but helping them do so will lead to a better future for Afghans. In Helmand, we are working to help build schools, provide clean water and electricity, surface roads and support agriculture. The UK Department for International Development will spend more than £500,000 in development assistance over the next four years.
Finally, Afghanistan’s neighbours must definitively accept its future as a secure country in its own right. It has long been a chessboard upon which the geopolitical struggles of others have played out. The new dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan is important. There are now mutually reinforcing efforts on both sides of the border, with extra troops deployed in southern Afghanistan alongside Pakistani military operations in Waziristan. This trend must be maintained and deepened, including with Afghanistan’s other neighbours.
People talk about Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires”. But the international community, still less Britain, is not trying to create a colony. We are there to help an Afghan government dismantle the insurgency through the twin tracks of military power and political engagement. That is a necessary mission, and an achievable one.