Once again, British forces have performed superbly in Afghanistan, re-capturing – with their US and Afghan allies – the key town of Musa Qala in the teeth of stiff opposition from the Taliban.
But the success of our forces should not blind us to the broader picture across the country. Things are not going well in Afghanistan. We face a clear choice: act now, or risk failure in the country where the Taliban helped produce 9/11.
When I returned from my second visit there in July, I warned that we needed to wake up to the danger that we could end up winning the war, but still lose the country.
We needed to learn from the mistakes of Iraq and make some urgent course corrections before it was too late.
Above all, we needed a proper plan.
Since July, that need has only become more acute. Eighteen more British
service personnel have been killed. The security situation across the
country has deteriorated further. The last ten days alone have seen
three suicide bombings in Kabul, hitherto regarded as relatively safe.
The UN is now said to judge nearly half the country a no go area for
aid workers – up markedly on two years ago.
All of this is despite the magnificent efforts of our own forces in
Helmand Province. They are performing daily acts of great heroism and
winning repeated tactical battles with the Taliban.
But our military are the first to say that military force alone is not
enough, and will only succeed in the long run if it forms part of
comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan that stands a real chance of
The Prime Minister needs to produce such a plan.
What should it include?
First, we need to be more realistic and hard-headed about what we are
trying to achieve in Afghanistan, and how long it will take. We must
get away from the notion that we can impose a fully-fledged Western
democracy in a deeply traditional society.
Second, we need a more politically sophisticated strategy.
Beating the insurgency must be the over-riding priority.
That will require a wide-ranging approach – including not only aid
projects to win hearts and minds, but also a real effort to promote
local, Afghan-backed security solutions. It is proving too easy, once
NATO forces have cleared an area, for the Taliban to slip back in,
sometimes within hours. So there must be a boost to the international
effort to mentor the Afghan National Army, as the only long-term
guarantor of the country’s security.
We also need to make sure that the counter-insurgency effort has a
reinforced political element, with a deep understanding of the complex
local environment and how best to exert influence within it. We should
work harder to involve local shuras and tribal elders. Beating hi-tech
twenty-first century terrorism requires an old fashioned nurturing of
local political relationships. As much as possible, we should
‘Afghanise’ the international effort, and put an Afghan face on what it
is trying to achieve for Afghans in their own country.
Third, we desperately need to organise the international effort better,
a point I raised with the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when I
met her in Washington ten days ago.
Right now, it lacks the most basic requirement for success in stabilisation operations – unity of purpose and unity of command.
On the civilian side, for over a year I have been advocating the
appointment of a senior, high-profile figure to grip it and to provide
leadership, much as Paddy Ashdown did in Bosnia. Indeed, he would be an
excellent candidate to take on the role. With over 100 agencies with
more than $100 million a year to spend, there is far too much confusion
and duplication. That individual should have the authority of the UN,
NATO and the EU to co-ordinate the effort on the ground. The role
should not supplant the Afghan authorities, but provide them with a
much needed focal point in the international community.
Similar problems of co-ordination and duplication exist with the
military effort. NATO’s international assistance force (ISAF) and the
US-led Operation Enduring Freedom work alongside each other – but one
is focused on long term stability, the other on targeted
counter-terrorist operations. It is time to merge the two, or at the
very least put them under the same commander. Military operations also
need to be properly dovetailed with the international civilian
political effort in Afghanistan, so that they reinforce one another,
not get in each other’s way.
Just as important as these changes to overall strategy and organisation
is the need to make sure that our own forces have the equipment they
need to do their job in the tough conditions in Helmand. When I first
visited them in the summer of 2006, the lack of helicopters was a
severe constraint. It still is, as Shadow defence Secretary Liam Fox
saw on a visit only last month. It is high time the Government sorted
this out. Even if NATO cannot provide more helicopters, it might be
possible, as some commanders have suggested, to contract helicopters to
ferry cargo, and free up military helicopters for more urgent frontline
As our military effort in Southern Iraq draws down, this country
remains a lynch-pin of a NATO mission in Afghanistan which is daunting
in scale and which Ministers have stated looks set to last for many
years to come. One of the lessons of Iraq is that the Government must
be more candid with the public, and report more regularly and openly
about the actual situation on the ground. We have urged the Government
to report quarterly to Parliament, both on Iraq and Afghanistan, a
suggestion which I hope they will take up.
Now is the time for Gordon Brown to explain what the Government’s
strategy is in Afghanistan, to back up the efforts of our servicemen
and women in which the whole country rightly takes such pride.