Today’s Bonn Conference marks an important moment for Afghanistan. We share the Government’s objectives and give Ministers our support as they meet their counterparts. The whole country will share in our desire to find a lasting, peaceful settlement and see the return of our courageous Armed Forces. Concerns, however, are beginning to rise over the course of the internal and external political settlements necessary to bring lasting stability, as well as the security on the ground as NATO forces withdraw. Everyone will be deeply disappointed that we have not yet heard from the Prime Minister on what the UK Government’s priorities are for Bonn. His claim that Afghanistan is his number one priority is not borne out by his actions.
Some progress has been made and must rightly be highlighted. But there is unease that the process of transition in ten provinces comes alongside a recent United Nations report which said that in the first eight months of 2011 the average monthly number of violent incidents in Afghanistan was more than 2,100 – almost a forty per cent increase from the same period a year earlier. ‘Spectacular’ attacks are also on the rise, as is infiltration into the indigenous security forces and targeted, high profile assassinations. The notion that the Taliban’s momentum has been irreversibly damaged looks questionable in some parts of the country.
There has been a sense of alarm at reports of a quickening US drawdown before 2014 and the potential impact on security gains made as well as the balance of burden sharing. There is much concern over the impact of withdrawal on Pashtun villages in the South and East of the country, where the insurgency is at its most intense, and we will all have also read with concern reports about the uncertainty of the impact of withdrawal from Helmand. In this context it is concerning that beyond the now familiar rhetoric we have yet to hear clear statements of direction from Ministers on these issues or the feelings of those such as Brigadier General Sheren Shah, commander of 3/215 Brigade, who has said departure could precipitate a security situation similar to 1989.
We agree with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen when he said, “Within the ISAF mission, our approach remains in together, out together.” Transition and the drawdown must be co-ordinated, as must the level of burden sharing post 2014. We have yet to have any clarity on the level of the residual force which will remain in Afghanistan and it would be welcome to know the degree to which Ministers envisage the long-term stabilisation effort will be conducted between NATO nations and regional partners. Long-term funding pans also remain opaque, despite being central to confidence that security gains will be sustainable.
Afghanistan faces intractable but not insurmountable challenges. Long-term stability will depend on the strength and representativeness of authorities and a shared sense of ownership of their activity among the population. A constant concern has, therefore, been the ethnic make-up of security forces. ISAF have been trying to recruit more Pashtun into the army but figures suggest that the current proportion of southern Pashtun in the army is less than 4% while most analysts believe Pashtons constitute between 40 and 45% of Afghanistan’s 30 million population. Combine this with an attrition rate from the Afghan army of 24 percent per year, 86 percent illiteracy amongst soldiers and endemic drug use and the barriers to our goals are clear.
An internal political settlement, we all know, is essential. As Hilary Clinton has said, the outcome of any negotiation must be that ‘insurgents must renounce violence, abandon Al Qaeda and abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan.’ As part of the discussion on the future political composition of the country, corruption, electoral process and the legality of political parties are vital issues. It will also be necessary to address the tension between the centralised national administrative structure and the country’s regional diversity and tribal history. Ethnic and regional networks must be given a legitimate voice through systems they relate to culturally and, as Douglas Alexander has highlighted, Afghanistan’s thousands of villages and valleys will need a less centralised system than the present constitution.
What is important about the Bonn Conference is what it achieves, but also what it represents. Actions and strategies for the future of Afghanistan must be shared and based on multilateral diplomatic efforts, and so the Conference’s success will to a degree represent the level of shared international will and purpose. We all know that the chances of meaningful success are limited due to the boycott of Pakistan, but they should not be limited further by a lack of ambition from the UK Government. The Government must start to make the case for Afghanistan and to convince people they have a plan for the many challenges that remain. The public are entitled to answers from a UK government that seems to have chosen not to talk publicly or proactively about Afghanistan, but their continued silence is not a strategy.
This article was originally posted on LabourList. Read here.