LibLink: Sir Robert Smith – We must not turn our back on Afghanistan

At a workshop on child rights at French Cultural Centre, Kabul, AfghanistanSir Robert Smith, Lib Dem MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Co-Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afghanistan, has written this week about the need for Britain, as our direct military involvement comes to an end, to ensure we keep our promise to maintain support for a developing Afghanistan.

… the attacks of September the 11th brought home the fact that what happened in that far away country made a difference back here. Even then if the Taliban had handed over Al-Qaeda we would have left the Taliban in place. They chose not to cooperate. I supported the military intervention as a necessary response to the attacks of 9/11.

I did not support moving on to start a war with Iraq. It had devastating consequences for the mission in Afghanistan, the people there, and our troops. The diversion of resources and surveillance at a crucial time in carrying out the mission in Afghanistan seriously damaged its prospects.

The early goodwill was wasted with a lack of follow through as Iraq took the spotlight. A mission in Afghanistan was always fraught with risk in the best of circumstances, but to start a war on another front was madness. …

Given our direct involvement the British public see Afghanistan through the lens of Helmand Provence. It is important to remember the broad regional variations the provisional history of the country produces.

In the same vein Afghanistan is surrounded by neighbours with an interest in what is likely to develop there. The stability of the region requires a continued interest in stability for Afghanistan.

Stability is both a chicken and an egg when it comes to development aid. Without at least basic security it becomes very difficult to deliver aid projects. On the other hand successful development can lead to a greater stake in society for the population.

Delivering aid where possible through Afghan ministries requires careful auditing to see effective delivery. It can however help create more engagement with the delivery of Government services. We must not forget that even without the international security concern Afghanistan’s level of poverty justifies a strong aid programme in its own right.

In the longer run Afghanistan’s economy has the opportunity to improve its economic potential not only through developing its population, but from accessing its mineral resources.

As with any developing economy it is important that they do not sign away their future wealth too cheaply or become too beholden to one nation. Assistance in ensuring they have the resources to negotiate a fair deal could be an important part of building a better future.

You can read Sir Robert’s post in full here.

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8 Comments

  • Paul Reynolds 12th Apr '14 - 5:13pm

    Dear LDV readers. Many of you will be puzzled by the sentiments expressed in Sir Robert’s article reported on here. First the idea that a lack of troops and resources had been the problem in Afghanistan, consequent upon a diversion of effort to Iraq in 2003. Diligent readers of thev’quality’ media will know that every time there has been an increase in troop levels there has been an increase in insurgent attacks. Thus the war itself has not resulted in a military victory. Sure various UK politicians have been briefed on supposed progress in the rights of women and the numbers of girls going to school. But Afghanistan is not yet up to pre-Taliban levels by any means and legal measures like legalization of rape and the more permissive environment for pre-teen girls being ‘gifted’ as wives have shown us that things are going in reverse. What’s more the key peace measures required to enable stability have still not been taken- such as the agreements needed over borders and other matters with Pakistan (who haave been the Taliban’s backers) and the necessary decentralisation of power to Afghan provinces. The election have had symbolic effect but the corruption and trubalism is set to continue. The US is still trying to go it alone in Afghanistan and by-pass any agreements which would stop the flow or arms and money to various insurgent groups. But this will prolong the conflict. The population want to rid themselves of violent insurgent groups but they also want to rid themselves of the corrupt system which has been established by the West. A new diplomacy-led approach is long overdue, rather than the continuing military-led approach. Without constitutional change, and a regionallly backed comprehensive peace deal, we will still be observing a military conflict in Afghanistan for years to come. My advice to LDV readers is to treat well intentioned but somewhat superficial.puffery with a heavy dose of skepticism.

  • A Social Liberal 12th Apr '14 - 10:04pm

    I view Paul Reynolds post with some perplexion, given how troop dispositions in the Helmand actually effected the actions of the Taliban. Whilst the initial reaction of the Taliban to the ‘Surge’ of US Marines into Upper Helmand was to increase their attack on the Americans, those attacks were rebuffed. Then in the spring of 2009 the US marines started campaigning in earnest, taking the town of Dahaneh and moving into the southern reaches of the province which had at one time been unassailable. This was continued in 2010 when Marjah was taken, another town which had been in Taliban control for years.

    Far from the Surge provoking the Taliban into a continued maelstrom of action, after the initial reaction to the combined actions of allied troops they were only able to put up a desultary offense.

  • A Social Liberal 13th Apr '14 - 1:23pm

    @Paul Reynolds

    “Diligent readers of thev’quality’ media will know that every time there has been an increase in troop levels there has been an increase in insurgent attacks.”

    Dilligent readers should come to no such conclusion. Since the US ‘Surge’ in Helmand Province the hold the Taliban had over lower Helmand has been broken. Towns which had been in Taliban control for four or five years were handed back to the residents. I have seen US marines and UK soldiers saying that compared to the early days they saw little action. The casualty rate may well have gone up in the three years of the surge, but that was because the level of offensive operations had gone up trmendously. The way to look at it is, in 2008 we suffered over 50 deaths, in 2013 there were 13 casualties.

  • Paul Reynolds 13th Apr '14 - 3:30pm

    Thank you Social Liberal. There aren’t many social liberals in the MOD or armed forces. Perhaps understandably. Good points though. Indeed I make no claim that no battles have been won or military advances made. That would be absurd. But this article makes the point. British and US highly trained special forces ‘gaining’ a village, losing it and gaining it again … the armed forces put themselves in harms way (as I have done) and fight bravely – mostly a credit to their respective nations. But what exactly is the political or economic point of it all ? The last 2 US commanders both made it clear that there were ‘less than 100’ armed international Islamic insurgents in the country and most of those were older fighters still around after the fight against Soviet invasion. There isn’t even one group we are fighting against – there are many different groups funded by a different balance of external suppporters including our own allirs in the GCC. US findings have set out the reality that Pakistan’s involvement has always been primarily motivated by preventing the close Indian-Afghan relationship from becoming a threat to Pakistan, and one might loosely bay moa those a little with that.

    How can you fight a cross border insurgency when the border is not defined and on much of the other side of the border is not even governed by the Pakistani constitution ? Literally lawless.

    On top of that the article reported on in LDV seems to imply that women’s rights were one of the reasons we went to war. Well sure one of the problems for the US & UK military has been almost annual changes in kinetic aims, but women’s rights however laudable has not been one of them – are we to go to war with the Saudis, Turkmens and in Swaziland ?

    It is necessary to fight wars … sometimes… and the UK had superb military forces, but we are weakened by poor and indecisive politics.

  • A Social Liberal 13th Apr '14 - 5:41pm

    You are bouncing about too much for me to focus on any point, but in general you seem to be asking ‘what was the point’

    The main point of course was to remove Al Qaeda from the country – in your reply you have accepted that this was done. We remained in country in order to give security to the NGOs who had to rebuild the infrastructure we had knocked out in the invasion. This also allowed such things as rebuilding schools and facilitating the education of girls.

    The second reason was to give the Afghan armed forces and police force the breathing space so that they could build their strength to adequately combat the Taliban. Here I disagree with the coalition government, I think that by pulling our troops out now we are leaving Afghanistan in a parlous state. Whilst their troops may (or may not) be up to scratch their airforce is, to say the least, rudimentary. I am not confident that those forces will be able to resist the insurgents

    However, I agree entirely with Sir Robert – we made an elementary mistake in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan to fight the war in Iraq which then had to stay there in order to try and contain the Baathist backlash in the north and the Iranian funded fighting in the south. That we didn’t pay dearly for it in Afghanistan is due to the Talibans inability at that time to respond to the opportunity presented. By not having adequate forces in Helmand we put our troops there at additional risk. This is not just the fault of the Blair government but also its successors as they did nothing to build up our forces. It took the Americans to do what we should have seen needed doing.

  • Paul Reynolds 13th Apr '14 - 9:14pm

    Good solid points Social Liberal. But for LDV readers some clarification is beneficial. There were four ‘Western’ chains of command in Afghanisation – ISAF/NATO, the US Operation Enduring Freedom, both commanded from Kabul, and two sets of special forces commanded from DC. OEF was tasked with finding Bin Laden but never located him. ISAF never had defeating international Islamic insurgents as their military aim. (The statements about the lack of international insurgents in Afghanistan were made by the US authorities first BEFORE the main troop surges, so there is no implication that international insurgents were defeated. They were hardly there in the first place at the start of hostilities and easily crossed the borders, some starting with the Taleb government’s offer to hand them over before the war started.. The central military aims, widely publicised , was to ensure that Afghanistan did not become a potential haven for international armed Islamic militants, and alongside that, to ensure the Afghan government had the capacity, and deployed it, to ensure it had sufficient control to prevents its territory from being used as a base for international armed militants. This was never achieved and is still not achieved. Of course one wants to present a good case in military ventures, but there comes a time when truth is not only spoken to power but to the public as well. Large areas of Afghanistan are still not under government control. That is partly a military issue but mostly a political one. Parallel local administrations emerged because of the corruption and poor governance which resulted in provinces and districts having too little money, and then stealing a lot of it, whilst international aid efforts ran in parallel often with no connection with local and provincial authorities. The idea that the military task was to build up the Afghan forces so they could defeat the Afghan insurgents was never a realistic aim – it was a formulation which helped the politicians tell a good story but the real aim was to create some semblance of national forces and at least have some elite forces that could carry out specific tasks. The idea that an Afghan force could do what the US couldn’t was always regarded as a positioning of convenience. The idea that insufficient troops was the reason for the Talebs ‘military’ success glosses over the fact that Afghanistan was recovering reasonably well in the first years after 2002. It was only after Western forces increased troop numbers and tried to control militarily the South and East that the real war began. The Talebs success at controlling territory however was more to do with the poor governance, ‘honeypot centralisation’ in Kabul, and both Afghan and Western corruption than military prowess. Whilst the recent elections are a step forward, the insurgency is likely to continue, although one must admire the quality of the PR effort. Its just a shame that the political efforts towards peace and stability are so superficial and self-deluding. But things may change of course and a new president may be able to reach a deal with Pakistan, India and the various insurgent groups. One can live in hope.

  • Paul Reynolds 14th Apr '14 - 2:02pm
  • Paul Reynolds 14th Apr '14 - 2:06pm

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