The UK and its partners must commit to Afghanistan

The Afghan people were promised a country where human rights are respected and protected. We cannot

Osama Bin Laden's death has fuelled questions about the UK's presence in Afghanistan. Amidst all the debate, we are in danger of losing sight of the crucial point: when the international forces leave Afghanistan, they must leave behind national forces capable and ready to protect the Afghan people – or risk the country plunging back into civil war.

July marks the start of yet another chapter in Afghanistan's story when international forces begin to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan army and police. The handover is due to be completed by the end of 2014 – a dauntingly ambitious timetable in this fragile country.

It is far from certain that Afghanistan will have an adequately professional, accountable national security force by the time the international forces leave. Yet this, above all, is what will determine the legacy the UK and its partners leave behind after a long and costly war.

The ousting of the Taliban in 2001 was heralded as a defining moment for the Afghan people – a "triumph for human rights", in the words of the US state department. Four years later, when more than 50 nations gathered in London to discuss the rebuilding of Afghanistan, there was still a sense of optimism about the country's future.

The leaders at that conference knew that a professional, nationally respected and ethnically balanced police and army were vital to building a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. They agreed they would help to create these security forces by the end of 2010. That deadline has now passed – but few would claim that the expectations of the Afghan people have been met. Instead, amid dwindling hopes for Afghanistan, efforts to build the nation's security forces stand out as one of the greatest failures of the past decade.

Basic instincts

In February the head of Nato's training mission in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Caldwell, candidly acknowledged the grave mistakes made in the attempt to rapidly develop the national security forces. In particular, he admitted the international military have prioritised quantity over quality, with devastating results.

As he said: "We sent [police] into service with no training, no police education, and with only the promise to train [them] some day . . . and we wondered why so many Afghans felt their police were corrupt and ineffective . . . Well, they were."

Indeed, one official working for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said that, as late as 2008, "community members were basically rounded up off the street, told they were doing cash-for-work, and then they'd turn up at training and told they were police". There are currently an estimated 40,000 police who have not received even the most basic training. It's not surprising they're so derided by the Afghan public.

But it's not just about international governments keeping their promises. Afghan communities desperately want security and have high hopes for their own security forces. Training is a big problem, but so, too, is the lack of accountability of the police and army. Many Afghans believe – justifiably so – that Afghan soldiers and police are able to carry out abuse with impunity.

Last year, a young girl was raped by Afghan soldiers and then shot in the head when she tried to resist. The alleged perpetrator was assisted to flee the area by members of the security forces. An investigation was finally initiated under pressure from the army's legal advisers, but there was no investigation into the attempted cover-up.

In another incident, two women were lashed in public by local elders as police stood by laughing and clapping. The authorities told the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) that it wasn't possible to carry out an investigation.

When will they ever learn?

This perception that the Afghan police and army are able to get away with rape and other serious human rights abuses is undermining popular support for the Afghan government – with grave political implications. As one investigator with the AIHRC explained, "Everybody knows that the Taliban abuse human rights, but people have more hope from their own forces. And where there's a lot of hope, there's a lot of blame."

We know that the west's neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal contributed to the ongoing conflict and instability. Lessons need to be learned from past mistakes.

War in Afghanistan is not inevitable. If Afghans see justice being done, and feel protected from violence by an army and a police force that are accountable to the public, there's a vastly better chance that international efforts could succeed in breaking the seemingly endless cycle of war.

The Afghan people were promised a country where human rights are respected, protected and governed by the rule of law. We cannot afford to let them down – for their sakes and for our own. It's not yet too late, but without genuine political commitment at the highest levels of civilian and military leadership to build the kind of national security forces that Afghans can trust, it soon will be.

Rebecca Barber is a humanitarian policy officer with Oxfam and the author of a recent report on Afghanistan, No Time to Lose.

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times