Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why are we behind the curve on Afghanistan?

Earlier this week our ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper- Coles said that our mission to Afghanistan was doomed and the best thing was to install a dictator, then this morning, I wake up to the news that Brigadier Mark Carelton-Smith, our most senior military commander in Afghanistan, declares the war against the Taliban cannot be won. “We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations,” he told the Sunday Times. This lead to an interesting debate on the Sunday programme this morning as to the morality of staying there at all (an edition which also includes an interview with our own Fiyaz Mughal).

At conference I had the massed SAS of the Lib Dems, namely Ed Davey, William Wallace and Bob Russell, arguing against my call to drop the lines in the Security motion referring to Afghanistan. As when I called for troops out of Iraq a couple of years ago, I attracted the support of about 6 members and a dog! As I reminded conference, it wasn't that long before party policy changed on the issue, so on this issue too, I am disappointed that we are not ahead of the curve. We are not only out of step with public opinion, we are out of step with expert, particularly military expert, opinion.

As pointed out on Sunday this morning, expecting a war on a nation (or two as it looks likely to become) to resolve a global terrorism problem is utter nonsense.In Afghanistan we are clearly part of the problem, not the solution.

Whilst as a party we may have supported the original action, as I pointed out at conference, we did not write a blank check, or endorse the mass killing of civilians, or approve attacks on Pakistani soil. We didn't support more than half Afghan GDP being in the opium business, flooding the UK with cheap heroin.

When Parliament debated the Helmand UK troop deployment our Minister of Defence uttered the famous phrase ‘without a shot being fired’. Seven years on, not only are we a long, long way from achieving the original reasons for the invasion, we are getting further away from it. Insurgents and militias now control a majority of territory, and key ministries are under insurgent influence. The Talebs have not been driven from power, and Afghanistan is just as a much a lawless haven for ‘terrorists’ as it was before 2001.

Other than bombing Pakistan and risking a wider war, no credible strategy has been put forward for reversing the decline.Second, and more importantly, key necessary steps towards peace are not being taken. No cross-border insurgency can be won without the border being clear and defined. For historical reasons, and for constitutional reasons in Pakistan, the Afghan-Pakistan border remains undefined. A condition of billions of dollars of support for Afghanistan and Pakistan should be the signing of a Treaty defining the border. This however is even more important than at first seems. It is a stark fact that the Pakistani Constitution does not fully extent to the border. The Tribal Areas where insurgents, we are told, have their bases, are not fully under the Pakistani Constitution – there are no Constitutional human rights, elections, courts or other symptoms of the rule of law.

Third, the policies being imposed on the Afghan government, and the modus operandi of the Coalition, are both very obviously wrong-headed. We’ve all heard about the appalling waste and inefficiency of aid monies, and the missing billions, but worse are Coalition attempts to break with Afghan traditions, and force through a heavy centralisation of power. The result is ‘honeypot corruption’ with small cliques unable to pocket the money fast enough. Provincial and District governments stand idle while central government stalls and steals, and aid money gets channelled to unaccountable non-constitutional bodies around the country, many controlled by insurgents and drug barons.

And what about the military side ? This is a terrible mess, with FOUR separate lines of command – ISAF/NATO, the US Operation Enduring Freedom, and two direct US lines of command from Washington. Many operations are undertaken via one line of command without the knowledge of the other, as British senior military officers will angrily testify to. The result is a conflicting set of strategies where even how allies and enemies are defined changes daily, depending on who you talk to. Who are we fighting? Pashtun nationalists in Pakistan & Afghanistan; drug warlords and tribes; Mosque-based militias, global political Islam after 9/11; or factions in the Pakistani army seeking (as they claim) ‘strategic depth’ to prevent Indian influence?

The situation is clearly a mess, maintained it seems to me, in order for the British and US governments in particular to attempt to save face. An attempt that is destined to fail. It is worrying that Obama is trumpeting his intention to continue this doomed operation. In the meantime civilians and our servicemen and women will continue to lose their lives. It is about time that we as a party rediscovered the nerve we displayed over Iraq and began to challenge our reasons for being there. If we won't do it, who will?

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