Monday, August 17, 2009
The country's new government must ensure that its people benefit from Britain's sacrifice, says David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary.
On Sunday three more men lost their lives in an explosion in Helmand. This brings to eight the number of British soldiers lost in the last week, and to 204 the total killed in the conflict. Every life lost is a reminder of the bravery of our soldiers and the sacrifices they make every day. It is understandable that people are asking why we are there, how long the fighting will continue, and whether the sacrifice and suffering is justified.
We are in Afghanistan through necessity. As the home of international terrorism, the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the primary threat to Britain's national security. Having driven al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, we must not let it come back again under the safe umbrella of Taliban rule.
Our soldiers are fighting in a coalition of 42 allies and alongside Afghan forces to push the Taliban out of the towns and villages and ensure they stay out.Saturday's bombing of Nato's Kabul headquarters, which killed seven people and wounded more than 90, confirms the warnings that the insurgency would do everything to disrupt elections.
One source of the Taliban's strength, but also vulnerability, is that they are an amalgam of different groups – a coalition of convenience. They recruit foot soldiers at $10 a day. Narco-traffickers work with them to get safe passage for drugs. Warlords, believing the Taliban will win, position themselves for their own political advantage. Perhaps most crucially, Afghans, despite dreading the Taliban's return, fear that international forces will leave before the Afghan state is ready to protect them, so hedge their bets.
Whether military breakthroughs are translated into strategic success depends on politics – crucially the ability of the political system to incorporate people currently acquiescent to or supportive of violence. International and Afghan forces can keep the insurgents on the back foot. But only legitimate, clean and competent Afghan government, recognising local tribal structures as well as national democratic ones, can provide an alternative focus for loyalty. Effective protection and a better life is the best way to keep the insurgency at bay.
So Thursday's elections will be crucial. Last month British troops, alongside Danes, Estonians and Afghans, fought to clear the Taliban out of Babaji, bringing security through extraordinary military effort to tens of thousands of Helmandis and allowing them the chance to vote. The Taliban are prepared to use the most violent and cowardly tactics to disrupt the poll. But the campaign has been vigorous and competitive. Candidates have campaigned across the country, not just in their own ethnic communities. More than 80 per cent of the population are following the elections closely. Ninety per cent are reasonably confident that they will be fair. The Afghan Independent Electoral Commission has gone to great lengths to ensure that voting will take place in all 34 provinces. Many more polling stations will be open than in the 2004 and 2005 elections.
International monitors will work alongside tens of thousands of Afghans. There will be secure ballot papers, tamper-free envelopes and indelible ink marking the fingers of everyone who votes. If no candidate wins an absolute majority there will be a second round six weeks later.
But whichever candidate triumphs, there are three priorities for the new government if it is to defeat the insurgency and build a more stable and prosperous state.
First, it must show that it can and will protect the interests of ordinary Afghans. It will have to replace corrupt and incompetent ministers and provincial governors, and build effective governance province by province, district by district. It must continue to build up the Afghan security forces and increasingly conduct joint international-Afghan operations. We've trained 90,000 members of the Afghan National Army and 80,000 police. By the end of 2011 those figures will stand at 134,000 and 97,000.
Second, the government must develop and implement a political strategy to reconcile and reintegrate insurgents prepared to give up violence. They need to separate socially conservative Pashtuns prepared to abide by the constitution, from the hard core who support or host global jihadis. The next government must give more people the chance to switch sides and stay out of trouble, alongside tougher action against those who refuse.
Third, Kabul must deepen cooperation with its neighbours, particularly Pakistan. The Pakistani military offensive launched in April means for the first time the insurgency is being squeezed on both sides of the border. This squeeze should be intensified.
A total of 204 of our fellow citizens have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country in Afghanistan. We pay tribute to their courage. The next Afghan government has a duty to show its determination to root out corruption, the dedication to build a state that properly protects its people and the vision to build an inclusive political settlement. In that work they deserve strong international support. Britain's job is to be part of that effort.
David Miliband is the Foreign Secretary