2009 was the bloodiest year of the conflict in Afghanistan: the UK lost over 100 soldiers and the number of civilians killed by insurgents increased. But the stakes are high, not only for serving personnel and the people of Afghanistan but also for the wider South Asian region and international security as a whole.
Over the last year there has been a serious push on the military front. The US General Stanley McChrystal took over as Force Commander and refreshed military strategy. The international community committed an additional 60,000 troops and the size of the Afghan National Army grew by 20,000.
But the heart of counterinsurgency doctrine is that military force alone is never enough to achieve lasting success. Our military effort is critical, but unless we address the underlying causes of extremism and conflict – the lack of security that means people are afraid to stand up against Taliban intimidation; the poverty that means the Taliban can buy foot-soldiers for $10 a day; and the exclusion of certain ethnic groups from Afghan politics – there will always be new recruits.
The aim of the Afghanistan Conference in London on 28 January was therefore to mobilise international resources – military and civilian – behind a clear political strategy to win over the active support of more of the Afghan population, split the insurgency and encourage Afghanistan’s neighbours to become part of the solution. For these efforts to have a lasting impact they must be Afghan-led, helping President Karzai to deliver the ambitious agenda he set out at his inauguration last November.
Representatives of over 70 countries and international organisations attended the London Conference, where they agreed to strengthen their support with respect to the three pillars of this political strategy: security; governance and development; and regional relations.
In terms of security, the development of the Afghan army and police force is intended to give the Afghan population the confidence to resist Taliban bribery and intimidation. Afghanistan now has almost 200,000 soldiers and police. But the London Conference agreed on a new, more ambitious target: to increase this figure by over 50 per cent (ie to more than 300,000) by October 2011. And with the Afghan National Army growing stronger and gaining experience, the Conference marked the beginning of the process for transferring responsibility for security from international forces to Afghan forces – agreeing the necessary conditions under which we can begin, district by district and province by province. The intention is for some provinces to change over by late 2010 or early 2011, on the road to meeting President Karzai’s target that within three years Afghans should have taken the lead, and be conducting the majority of operations in insecure areas.
With additional troops – Afghan and international – the insurgency will come under increasing military pressure. Some insurgents will start to reassess their options as the risks of fighting grow. President Karzai is launching a Peace and Reintegration Programme to offer those who can be persuaded a safe route back to normal Afghan life. To this end, a Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund was announced at the London Conference as the vehicle through which the international community will provide financial assistance; already $140m has been pledged for the first year.
The second pillar of the political strategy is governance and development. Winning the support of ordinary Afghans starts with security and protection, but it does not stop there. Afghan people want a fair justice system and the opportunity to develop skills and earn a decent living. They need basic infrastructure, such as roads on which they can take their goods to markets.
Outside Kabul, however, the Afghan Government is chronically weak and struggles to deliver even basic services. Less than a quarter of Afghanistan’s 364 governors have electricity and some receive only $6 per month in expenses. The Taliban has tried to exploit this weakness and win support by setting up its own shadow government system.
Building up local government is therefore a top priority. That is why the London Conference agreed to help train 12,000 sub-national civil servants. But if the Afghan Government is to win the support of more of the population it needs to govern in their interests, which is why President Karzai must turn his promises to tackle corruption into serious action.
Development assistance is important in its own right, but the growth of the legal economy will also help to draw people away from both the insurgency and the drugs trade. Hence the significance of the announcement at the London Conference that Afghanistan will receive up to $1.6 billion extra in debt relief from major creditors and that there will be a new IMF programme from June 2010.
The third element of the political strategy concerns relations between countries within the region. The situation in Afghanistan is destabilising South Asia: crime, drugs, terrorism and migration spill across its borders. There is a growing awareness within the region that the status quo in Afghanistan benefits nobody. At the same time, there is a dawning realisation that no country in the region, let alone the international community, will allow Afghanistan to become a client state.
In these twin changes – a simultaneous recognition that a client state is out of reach for all, and that an unstable state is damaging to all – is the seed of a shared interest. This shared interest should be the basis for greater regional cooperation. Each neighbour needs to know that its restraint and cooperation will be reciprocated, so they need reassurances about each other’s behaviour and intentions. Building trust will take time, but such trust is vital if Afghanistan’s neighbours are to be persuaded to cut off the lines of funding, support and shelter for the insurgents that stretch across Afghanistan’s borders. That is why the Regional Summit in Istanbul on 26 January and discussions in London about the role of Afghanistan’s neighbours in supporting stability are important steps in the right direction.
The political strategy – including the specific agreements reached in London – needs to be pursued with drive, determination and without delay. The Afghan Government will host a further conference in Kabul later this spring. Conferences may be far removed from the daily danger of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or the lives of the 40 per cent of Afghans who live on less than a dollar a day; but Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved without marshalling the resources of the international community – civilian and military – behind a coherent plan owned by the Afghan government. That is what we are committed to doing.