Last week I visited Afghanistan with the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. We travelled to Camp Bastion in Helmand and visited our troops, meeting both civilian and military leaders there and in Kabul. We also met the special representatives from NATO and the UN and President Hamid Karzai.
I left in a more optimistic mood than when I arrived – there is no doubt that significant progress is being made but I was left with a sense that a big gap remains between domestic attitudes to the war as compared to the complex and fragile situation on the ground.
Whilst the public’s attitude seems to remain very positive and supportive of the selfless sacrifices of our serving soldiers – and rightly so – there seems to be a growing frustration in some quarters with the underlying rationale for being in the country at all. Very often I hear the line “Afghanistan is a lost cause – we need to get out as soon as possible”.
My impression is that the focus on building capacity amongst the Afghans to find sustainable self-directed security and governance models is gaining ground. It is unlikely that this process will run smoothly but when combined with very positive steps in repelling the insurgent Taliban, there is a reasonable expectation that the country will find some sort of equilibrium later this decade.
What is needed from the UK Government is a sharper narrative that makes clear that the security risks deriving from an unstable Afghan state with strong links to “safe havens” for Taliban renegade groups in Pakistan means that a quick and easy solution is not on offer. It is clear that we can never build a replica of “Surrey-nice-parts” and nor should we ever try to, but we do have a reasonable prospect of helping develop a state that can largely police itself and resemble a respectably stable regional player. This could offer the Afghan people a more reliable basis for peace and displace the arbitrary Taliban-style justice that currently exists in some parts of the country.
This will not happen overnight and by December 2014 the Prime Minister’s policy of withdrawing combat troops does seem realistic IF there is a serious commitment to invest in training of both the Afghan army and police force as well as more sophisticated work developing civil society and the rule of law. Without a clear commitment to the post-2014 endeavours there is a significant risk that the fragile state will revert to a far less predictable and volatile situation a few years later. We have started so we must finish in a way that delivers the improved prospects for security.
The courage and commitment of all those fighting and working in Afghanistan is humbling – but we owe it to them and to the families of those who have suffered losses and horrific trauma through the injuries suffered to finish the job properly. This means investing in a carefully calibrated support operation after 2014 to secure the fragile peace.
I fear it will be several generations before Afghanistan is taken off the watch list but it could produce a greater security threat to Britain if the post-2014 settlement is not properly implemented: this is when the equilibrium can be established and where the sacrifices can be explained.