Our promise to Afghanistan

2009 was the bloodiest year of the conflict in Afghanistan. The UK lost over 100 soldiers, each one a personal tragedy. American military fatalities reached more than 300, nearly double the losses in 2008. Afghan National Security Forces also suffered heavily, and the number of civilians killed by the insurgents increased. But the stakes are high not just for our serving personnel and the people of Afghanistan, but for our national security, for the South Asian region, and for the credibility of the NATO Alliance. That is why the British government has invited over 70 countries and international organizations to the Afghanistan Conference in London on Thursday.

In the 1990s the Taliban misrule in Afghanistan provided a safe haven for al Qaeda. It was from there that the worst terrorist atrocity ever seen was planned and orchestrated. Our goal today remains as it was in the aftermath of 9/11 — to ensure that al Qaeda is not able to once again use Afghanistan as a base to attack innocents around the world.

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Last year saw the election of a new Afghan government, a reinvigoration of the military strategy and an additional commitment to increase international troops by 60,000. And the size of the Afghan National Army grew by 20,000.

These developments are significant. But counterinsurgency is never won by military means alone. Politics is critical: the Afghan government and its allies must marshal all their resources behind a clear political strategy to win over the support of ordinary Afghans, divide the enemy, and encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors to become part of the solution.

The London Conference will focus on the three critical elements of such a political strategy: security, governance and development, and regional relations.

The vast majority of Afghans do not want the Taliban back. But we need to overcome Afghan fear that the international community will pull out before the Afghan National Security Forces can provide protection from Taliban retribution. It is this that stops ordinary people from resisting or informing on insurgents in their midst.

Since 2007, the international community has invested heavily in training and mentoring the Afghan National Army and Police. Together these arms of the security forces now number almost 200,000. By October 2010, the ANA will be 134,000 strong, and the ANP 109,000, but more are required. Delegates at Thursday’s conference will look to the Afghan government to recruit additional military and police. More international support is also needed — NATO’s training mission currently has a shortfall of 1,600 trainers.

The conference will also consider how the roles of the international and Afghan forces should evolve. As the Afghan National Security Forces develop, they will need to assume — district by district, province by province, as the necessary conditions are met — lead responsibility for security, as they already have in Kabul. And we hope the conference will lead to international funding for an Afghan-led reintegration program because, as military pressure intensifies, some insurgents will reassess their allegiances. If we are to integrate former fighters permanently back into peaceful Afghan life, there needs to be a program that offers genuine alternative employment.

The Afghan people crave not just security, but the basics of government and development. Local and provincial government is chronically weak. Less than a quarter of Afghanistan’s 364 governors have electricity and some receive only $6 a month in expenses. The Taliban are trying to step into the vacuum this leaves — appointing shadow governors, extorting taxes and enforcing a brutal form of justice.

It is for Afghans to decide how to run their country, but the international community must provide support, advice and funding. The London conference will consider how to build up local government, and improve processes for future elections. The international community will also be looking to President Karzai to turn promises to tackle corruption into serious action. And we will focus on development assistance, because Afghans need schools, roads and agricultural support to create jobs and provide alternative employment to the drugs trade or the insurgency.

The final element is regional. Pakistan is the priority; militants have long passed freely across the 1,600-mile border between the two countries. But all Afghanistan’s neighbors are affected by the drugs, terrorism and migration that spill over its borders, and all have an interest in the country’s stability.

History has, however, bred suspicion and for too long Afghanistan has been a chessboard on which the struggles of others have been played out.

Building trust will take time, but it is vital for more constructive relations. That is why all the key players will be in London. And why, in advance of that, the Turkish government is holding a meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors to develop ideas for improving regional co-operation.

Over the last few years I have visited this region many times. I have seen the effort being made by Afghans, Pakistanis and the international community to stem the insurgencies. The new military strategy will take this to the next level. But success demands that all those involved align themselves behind a clear political strategy too. The London conference will, I hope, be the first step to achieving this.

Miliband is the British foreign secretary.