“The danger is being outgoverned, rather than outgunned”

We must prevent Afghanistan becoming a crucible once again for attacks against the rest of the world

The deaths of two British soldiers on 15 January and the attacks on government buildings in Kabul three days later were a reminder of the challenges of the campaign in Afghanistan. Last year, the NS warned that Afghanistan risked becoming another Vietnam, with western forces bogged down in an unwinnable war and waning popular support at home. I take the warning seriously. But I don't accept the thesis.

The conflict in Vietnam was the product of a world divided by the cold war. The UK and its European partners did not join the US in Vietnam, unconvinced by the arguments for intervention. By contrast, the intervention in Afghanistan was triggered by a direct attack against the US on 11 September 2001. It has commanded widespread global support since then and the rationale for our continuing effort remains a direct concern about the threat to our national security if Afghanistan once again becomes safe ground for al-Qaeda under the umbrella of the Taliban.

The Vietcong were a broad, deeply rooted, popular movement tapping into nationalist feelings throughout the country and society, and their appeal and legitimacy ultimately proved superior to that of the South Vietnamese regime. The Taliban have limited appeal due to their ethnicity, geography and the recent memory of their brutal, reactionary misrule. Afghans fear their return. They worry that when coalition troops begin to leave, the Afghan government will be too weak to stand up to the Taliban. That is why international troops are focusing on building up the Afghan army. It is now 100,000-strong, on the road to 134,000 in the course of this year.

General McChrystal is getting international forces not just to train Afghans, but to fight alongside them - there is no quicker or better way to build the expertise of the army than learning side-by-side in theatre.

To remain resistant to Taliban intimidation, Afghans need to know that their government can provide basic justice and maintain order. This is especially relevant as the Taliban seek to offer an alternative to the state. They appoint their own shadow governors and administer their own crude brand of "justice". The danger is that, rather than being outgunned, the Afghan government is outgoverned.

So it must build on and implement President Karzai's promise to tackle corruption. Provincial and district governors need to be given more power to govern and reach out to communities. That will include working with shuras of local elders to resolve disputes and expand social and economic provision. One example, in Helmand, is Governor Gulab Mangal's wheat distribution programme, supported by the UK, which has helped more than 35,000 farmers to grow wheat for the open market instead of opium poppies, the profits from which fill the Taliban coffers.

The enemy we face in Afghanistan is a diffuse network of insurgent groups with diverse motivations. The Taliban leadership is linked to al-Qaeda. The great mass of fighters is not. Most are driven by pride or the pursuit of profit or power rather than ideology.

Where the Vietcong were unified, the insurgency is a coalition of convenience that is capable of being divided. In his inauguration speech, President Karzai committed to an open and inclusive settlement for Afghanistan, beginning with a peace jirga - a gathering of the leaders of tribes and groups that make up Afghan society. We must support the government in its efforts to draw conservative Pashtun nationalists away from the insurgency. We must separate those who are prepared to participate in the free and open society enshrined in the Afghan constitution from the hardline ideologues whom we must face on the battlefield.

Neighbouring countries are suffering from the terrorism, drugs and crime that spill over Afghanistan's borders. As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear within the region that a stable, sovereign Afghan state is in the interest of all its neighbours. We need to build trust between these countries about each other's intentions. Pakistan is key. The history of finger-pointing (at best) with its neighbour has been replaced by co-operation. The Pakistani army's offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas means that the Taliban are being squeezed on both sides of the border.

The implications for how we succeed are clear: military and development resources are critical, but they need to be channelled towards a clear political strategy aimed at maintaining the support of the Afghan people, dividing the insurgency and building regional co-operation. That is the task when more than 70 countries and international organisations meet in London on 28 January to discuss Afghanistan. We will be looking to President Karzai's government to show that its intentions on security and governance will be carried through into action. And the international community must renew and redouble its commitment to success.

This is a critical year for Afghanistan. The tempo of operations will increase - so, too, the resources. We are not trying to build a colony for ourselves. We are trying to prevent it becoming a crucible once again for attacks against the rest of the world. This is a necessary and achievable goal.

David Miliband is the Foreign Secretary and MP for South Shields

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.