is Conservative MP for Gravesham, a member of the defence select
committee and a former soldier who has served in Iraq, Bosnia and
I am back from Afghanistan where I travelled to avoid the Conservative conference, with all its lobbyists and the latest batch of Special Advisors quite new to their subject areas. The most comfortable way to get to Afghanistan is via Dubai. This is where the mafia that runs Afghan politics has deposited much of the money we thought we were giving to the Afghan people. In the uncertainty about the country’s future, they have this year exported some $4 billion through Dubai – and the value of a “Poppy Palace” in Kabul’s centre is down by nearly 50%: this suggests some lack of optimism about the future once NATO withdraws most of its troops post-2014.
Dubai stores much of the money that was meant to turn the country round – and it is the place that even some of those sympathetic to the insurgency own apartments to run to in the event of the civil war that we are in danger of leaving behind. It is also the place in whose more quiet corners political leaders meet representatives of the Taleban, in the hope that ending the insurgency lies with them, rather than with the Pakistani military establishment – who would prefer chaos in Afghanistan to an Afghan government sympathetic to India. In a hotel lobby I briefly spot another meeting, as a well-known Afghan politician walks past with a ridiculously beautiful and over-done Russian or Ukrainian girl in her early 20s.
…And the "Axis of Evil" terminal
Flights to Kabul leave via Dubai’s Terminal 2, known locally as the “Axis of Evil terminal”. Flights leave here for those places in between, and Iran, the ‘Stans – now even scheduled flights to Camp Bastion – the vast desert base in Helmand province where tens of thousands of US, UK and Afghan troops are based. As I wait to board my flight I notice an absurd number of girls that look like exhausted supermodels: the flight from Gate 5 is about to depart for Kiev.
An hour and a half later I am at 30,000 feet looking down over the Helmand desert, eating a chicken sandwich and feeling chilly from the airconditioning. Thousands feet below fly the artillery shells that mark the presence of our troops on the ground, and local tribespeople enraged by the mission our party conference classes handed out to our army. Seven years after the arrival of British troops in Helmand, they continue die in the absence of any sort of coherent US political strategy for the conflict. Perhaps Prince Harry flies somewhere beneath us too.
To a friend's house in Kabul
The British Embassy is not known for its hospitality for those they consider to be off-message, so I go to a friend’s house in a smart armoured Land Cruiser (you are a nobody in Kabul if you ride in anything else). Later I see my friend the former Lithuanian Foreign Minister, now the EU's Special Representative in Kabul. In his compound it is not hard to see how far the EU has travelled from its roots as an Economic Community. But this man's presence is worth it: he knows a thing or two about living in a country emerging from client status with a Superpower, and uses his position to real effect: elsewhere in Kabul’s diplomatic community, most stay for a year at most – how can they begin to understand? He is more than halfway through his four year tour, and his efforts show.
"An Afghan solution?"
A little while ago at the UN in New York, David Cameron invested time and capital banging heads together between Indian-educated President Karsai and the Pakistanis. At last someone important is showing some realism: this war will not end when NATO leaves, but when Pakistan no longer fears that Afghanistan could in future host a second front against then in a war with India.
2014 also sees Afghan Presidential elections. The money and power lie with Karsai and his Dubai re-insured clique. Karsai can't stand for a third term, but for his group one of their circle must win or they may all risk prosecution for their industrial levels of corruption – or worse still, a more traditional Afghan death.
After school and before University I spent part of my gap year in Afghanistan with the Mujahadeen when they were fighting the Russians. My hosts then were Afghanistan’s traditional King-making family. 30 years later as I am ushered into their Kabul home I get an email on my Blackberry reminding me of “Conference: Lines To Take”. Past the peacocks on the green lawn, I sit down to hear that there is some hope for the country. They tell me of a possible “Afghan Solution” that the International Community has so far been so negligent in not supporting. In a little noted development some leading opponents of President Karsai have signed up the 20 major parties that are in opposition. Those amongst them keen to run against the Karsai candidate for President plan to agree to abide by the results of a serious piece of political polling that will determine who will have the best chance of beating the Karsai candidate.
It will not go as planned, but they are in earnest. Conversations are taking place with the Pakistani military: the promise, that if their candidate wins, they will make security guarantees to the Pakistanis that will be monitored and guaranteed by the UN or countries of Pakistan’s choice. This group are reaching heights in the Taleban leadership that the International Community can’t reach. Their message to them? Forget about winning the war neither side can win: come back in and get yourselves elected post-2014. The message to the new US President: you have lost 2,000 troops – honour them by leaving something other than chaos behind, so get behind those who pass for democrats in this dictatorship.
Time for a political surge
If this or something like it works, and it is a big if, the Afghans might actually have achieved what we never understood enough to try. By then British troops will have been dying and loosing limbs for 13 years – they have done everything and more than they were asked: but they have consistently been let down by the politics. Counter-insurgency is meant to be 90% politics and 10% force. Under US leadership, the opposite has been the case. It is not too late to start to work with the grain of Afghan politics, rather than against it. Over 430 of our soldiers have died in Afghanistan: more will die in the rudderless line taken up to 2012. It is hard to see what is still being achieved for Britain’s national interest by our on-going war fighting in Helmand. If we leave chaos behind us – as well as associated instability in Pakistan – they will have died largely in vain. A new US President could turn their back and say enough is enough – or they could at last get behind a “political surge”. I think David Cameron understands this rather well and hope that he makes the point strongly in his first transatlantic call on the 8th of Novmember: that would make a worthwhile conference call.