We must not turn our back on Afghanistan
As members of the UK Armed Forces prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, Endeavour Public Affairs will be publishing a series of exclusive articles reflecting on the last 12 years of UK involvement in Afghanistan and what the future may hold for this country. Our third article is written by Sir Robert Smith MP, who concludes that as our direct military involvement comes to an end we need to ensure we keep our promise not to turn our back and to maintain our support for a developing Afghanistan.
Sir Robert is the Liberal Democrat MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and is Co-Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afghanistan.
One of my abiding memories from Afghanistan was visiting a classroom where all the pupils were female. One girl proudly showed me her work from her school book. The enthusiasm with which these girls welcomed the opportunity to go to school contrasted markedly with the life they would have led under the Taliban.
However we did not become involved in Afghanistan out of a desire to improve the educational chances of women. We were for the most part unaware or disinterested in the plight of the Afghan people. Then the attacks of September the 11th brought home the fact that what happened in that far away country made a difference back here.
Even then if the Taliban had handed over Al-Qaeda we would have left the Taliban in place. They chose not to cooperate. I supported the military intervention as a necessary response to the attacks of 9/11.
I did not support moving on to start a war with Iraq. It had devastating consequences for the mission in Afghanistan, the people there, and our troops. The diversion of resources and surveillance at a crucial time in carrying out the mission in Afghanistan seriously damaged its prospects.
The early goodwill was wasted with a lack of follow through as Iraq took the spotlight. A mission in Afghanistan was always fraught with risk in the best of circumstances, but to start a war on another front was madness.
Back in the classroom six years later and colleagues on a similar visit were told it was not appropriate to meet the girls during a school visit. The status of women in Afghanistan is still very precarious yet a country cannot achieve its full potential utilising only half its population. Our ongoing development support needs to encourage the country to recognise the potential role women can play in the future.
Our troops have shown immense bravery and professionalism in playing a major part in the forces deployed to assist Afghanistan. Quite understandably the news coverage of Afghanistan has led with their sacrifice. I think it is important to recognise that as well as the loss of life our forces have faced major injuries from their engagement in Afghanistan.
Training up the next generation of Afghan troops to take on the security role is a crucial part of trying to ensure a smooth handover. I personally thought a fixed end date for deployment risked focussing the efforts of the opposition though I understood it, also, focussed the mind of the Afghan Government on the need to take on the security task.
It was clear that the support for maintaining engagement back in the home countries of the deploying nations was not going to last much longer. The troop surge was politically all that could be delivered.
Given our direct involvement the British public see Afghanistan through the lens of Helmand Provence. It is important to remember the broad regional variations the provisional history of the country produces.
In the same vein Afghanistan is surrounded by neighbours with an interest in what is likely to develop there. The stability of the region requires a continued interest in stability for Afghanistan.
Stability is both a chicken and an egg when it comes to development aid. Without at least basic security it becomes very difficult to deliver aid projects. On the other hand successful development can lead to a greater stake in society for the population.
Delivering aid where possible through Afghan ministries requires careful auditing to see effective delivery. It can however help create more engagement with the delivery of Government services. We must not forget that even without the international security concern Afghanistan’s level of poverty justifies a strong aid programme in its own right.
In the longer run Afghanistan’s economy has the opportunity to improve its economic potential not only through developing its population, but from accessing its mineral resources.
As with any developing economy it is important that they do not sign away their future wealth too cheaply or become too beholden to one nation. Assistance in ensuring they have the resources to negotiate a fair deal could be an important part of building a better future.
The history of Afghanistan is complex. It has had its periods of stability. We paid a high price for ignoring what was developing in Afghanistan when we last turned our back on it. As our direct military involvement comes to an end we need to ensure we keep our promise not to turn our back and to maintain our support for a developing Afghanistan.
Published: Monday 07 April 2014
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Photograph: © Copyright of Sir Robert Smith MP
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone