Monday, November 27, 2006

Afghanistan matters

Had dinner with a couple of (civilian) friends recently returned from Afghanistan, where they have been working in pretty tough circumstances. Not only are there the obvious threats from hostile action - and appalling traffic safety - but there are more insidious dangers. There is little to do but work - so work they do every hour that God gives. When usually energetic people fall asleep on your sofa mid-sentence you know that they may just have been pushing themselves a little bit too hard. Or, alternatively, I really need to brush up on my conversational skills...

Although there is much press concern at recent casualties in both Afghanistan and Iraq it is important that we do not treat the two engagements in a similar way. The Iraq invasion was a misconceived, illegal and foolish act of over-reaching arrogance on the part of the US and UK Governments. In Afghanistan by contrast, there was some justification for external involvement (if nothing else there was a link to September 11th terrorists), and this was a country that desperately needed a fresh chance.

The tragedy is that the urgent race in to Iraq means that we wasted critical years (and resources) better devoted to helping the new Afghan Government. Afghanistan's strong clan system, weak central institutions and multiple (bribe-able) guerilla warlords means that it is a place where to overthrow and replace the central Government is remarkably easy. But to then hold everything together is almost imposible. The Soviets, various warlords including the Taleban and now Americans have discovered this to their peril.

Everything from historical antecedents (one 19th Century British army had but one survivor - a doctor - when they tried to fight their way back to India from Kabul) to what is amongst the most rugged (and beautiful) geographies in the world suggests that we are in in for hard time. But try we must. The last time we abandoned Afghanistan - after they had forced the Soviet withdrawal (and added a pretty huge nail to the coffin of the Eastern Bloc) - we ended up with the rise of the Taleban - and the road to September 11.

The challenge though is to decide what we are aiming to do: is it to stabilise the country, to defeat the drug-traffickers, to destroy what remains of Al-Quadea, to capture Osama bin Laden or to bring development and support to a nation that badly needs it? Clarity on objectives - and a sense of humility and understanding that we can only achieve what the Afghan people want us to achieve - is vital if this is not to turn in to another Iraq.

No comments: