Afghanistan is not a hopeless quagmire

The choice now is to risk abandoning a decade of military and civilian investment, or to capitalise on it.

NATO’s leaders have set out a roadmap for long term political and economic support for Afghanistan, but the headline-grabbing component is that the NATO-led combat mission will cease in 2014.

Despite repeated assurances that the alliance will provide support and training to the Afghan National Security Forces well beyond 2014, the strategy is frequently portrayed as a "rush to the exit". This perception threatens to undermine our armed forces’ remarkable achievements in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of their sacrifices, the Afghan National Security Forces are increasingly able to take the lead in maintaining security. This is essential in order to build a functioning Afghan state.  But it is only one part of the task.  There are still daunting challenges to strengthen civilian services and the economy.

A decade of development assistance has transformed many lives. 5.8 million Afghan children, including 2.2 million girls, are now in school – up from 1 million boys and no girls under the Taleban.  More than half the population now have access to health facilities within an hour’s journey, compared to less than 10 per cent in 2002.

The situation in Afghanistan is far from rosy, but it is not the hopeless quagmire sometimes portrayed in the media which, understandably, gives more space to dreadful events like "green-on-blue" attacks, rather than the slow but steady progress with Afghanistan’s ability to stand on its own feet.

I have recently returned from my fifth visit to Afghanistan where I had the opportunity to take stock of the situation as seen by NATO military and civilian personnel and Afghan parliamentary and provincial leaders. One measure of progress is the truly remarkable growth in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).  A few years ago – and not before time – efforts began to recruit and train the over 350,000 soldiers and police men and women judged necessary to maintain security in Afghanistan.  With well over 300,000 now in place, Afghan forces are now taking the lead in a growing number of districts and provinces.  By the end of next year, they will be in the lead throughout Afghanistan although ISAF – and its successor – will continue to provide support and training well beyond 2014.  Some capabilities such as air support, medical evacuation and other key “enablers” take time to build from scratch.  Highly-skilled pilots and engineers cannot be produced quickly in a nation whose education system has been woefully neglected for decades.

This leads me to my key point: NATO-led forces have enabled Afghanistan to increasingly take responsibility for its own security.  We must now do more to assist Afghanistan to bring about a similar step change in governance and the economy.

President Karzai is due to step down, and a new president to be elected, in April 2014. The election will not run like clockwork but it must be free and fair enough to reassure voters that the victor really is the people’s choice.  Afghanistan’s large, well trained and well equipped security forces are accountable to the Head of State.  If the new President were to lack legitimacy their loyalty and accountability could be compromised.

The challenges are formidable. The relationship between central government and the provinces is sometimes dysfunctional, corruption is rife, skilled labour is in critically short supply, and the economy has been devastated by decades of war.  But the investments needed to address these problems are much smaller than those that have been made in security.  The choice now is to risk abandoning a decade of military and civilian investment, or to capitalise on it.

During my recent visit, I saw how leaders in Herat have begun to take advantage of the relatively stable security environment there to create new economic opportunities.  They greatly appreciate the transformation that the international community has made possible, but they are also aware that they still have an enormous mountain to climb, and the climb could be made faster and easier with more outside help.

So what can we do?

First, launch specific assistance programmes to mitigate the economic effects of reducing force numbers and closing military bases.  The force drawdown will hurt local communities which have benefited economically from providing goods and services to many of our military facilities.  We must avoid delivering a harsh economic blow to an already impoverished people.

Second, help Afghanistan to register voters and create a trusted and independent electoral commission to supervise the elections.

Third, emphasise and re-emphasise that 2014 marks a transition to a new form of engagement and not a withdrawal.  The Afghan people remember being abandoned by the international community before and naturally fear the prospect of a repeat performance.  There is already evidence that uncertainty about “post-2014” is leading to the flight of capital and educated Afghans whom the country can ill afford to lose.

NATO and its partners should announce as soon as possible the details of the forces that will deliver support and assistance beyond 2014.  At the same time, the national and international organizations delivering civil and economic assistance should demonstrate a visible expansion of their activities.

Fourth, as the budget for "military operations" reduces, governments should allocate a proportion of their peace dividend to development assistance in Afghanistan.  The ratio certainly doesn’t need to be one-to-one.

According to one estimate, each American serviceman costs about a million dollars per year.  To put that in perspective, Afghanistan receives about 220 million Euros per year in aid from the European Union’s central budget and about five times that figure from the EU nations themselves.  That is a lot of money, but less than $2 billion, so less than the cost of 2,000 soldiers when we are bringing tens of thousands home.  We shouldn’t just throw money at Afghanistan, but we must make sure that development programmes are sufficiently resourced.

We should do this because we have succeeded in raising hopes in Afghanistan, and we have a responsibility to help those hopes to be fulfilled.  And if that is not reason enough, we should remember that it is in our own interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not fail. We have witnessed the terrible consequences of the world turning its back on Afghanistan. Through literally heroic efforts and sacrifices, Afghanistan is almost ready to take the lead in dealing with its own security problems.  We should now rise to the civil and economic challenges to make sure that our military sacrifices have not been in vain.

An elderly Afghan man walks past a US Army infantryman in the Panjwai district in Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hugh Bayley is Labour MP for York Central

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.