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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.