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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

We should reassess our role in Afghanistan

Last week's Tribune contained an opinion piece I wrote on Afghanistan, reproduced below.

The West faces the prospect of serious failure in Afghanistan unless it reassesses its strategy now.

As this month we have watched UK troops leave their central Basra base in Iraq, we are over a year on from the British move into Helmand Province, where from the first we have faced serious opposition from local and outside Taliban forces. One day the full story of the gallantry of British armed forces in that region will be told. Even now, the public appreciates to a great extent the sacrifices being made on its behalf in the deserts of Afghanistan. Yet the depressing fact is that there seems little progress made since a year ago. Indeed, efforts at reconstruction have been abandoned in some areas since it is simply too dangerous for aid agencies to operate.

Twelve months ago we were debating a record poppy harvest. Today, we are doing the same. A UN report last month noted that while there had been some progress made in the North of Afghanistan, poppy production was higher in the South. Once again there have been suggestions that alternative methods be employed to reduce the opium coming onto the world market. The Senlis Council, a NGO, has proposed that the West buys up opium for use in the pharmaceutical industry. This seems to ignore some basic economics.

Disrupting opium production should raise the cost of supply and so make it less likely for someone in the UK to start taking the drug. However, heroin is highly addictive and therefore once a drug user is hooked, his or her demand for more will be relatively immune to the price. If the UK government waded into the opium market to buy the drug, the price would probably rise but the demand would not fall to the same extent. The higher price would in this case increase supply by encouraging more farmers to switch to poppies and more land into poppy production. The higher price would also have the effect of increasing the returns to the Taliban.

Poppies are not the strategic problem in Afghanistan. The main problem is routing the Taliban. However, once again we should recognise that the Taliban are an amorphous force, apart from the foreign fighters making their way from Pakistan to fight Western soldiers. Afghan people are used to seeing foreign armies come and go. We should not be surprised by accounts of people alternating between being peaceful villagers and Taliban fighters.

A year ago we were following accounts of brave but apparently under-resourced British troops. Today we are doing the same. We are told there are up to 7,700 British troops in Afghanistan, most in Helmand. In practice this must mean the actual number of fighting troops is much smaller since it takes many soldiers in logistics, supply, and communications, to support a unit of soldiers actually engaged in fighting. We probably do not have enough people on the ground.

Journalists have given accounts of soldiers gaining ground amidst much bravery and cost, only to have to relinquish it soon afterwards. Gradually some progress is being made but we seem to be witnessing only a slow increase in the number of soldiers as we deal with stretched armed forces. Meanwhile, US forces are still apparently operating under different chains of command as they continue the search for Bin Laden and co.

A cold hard look has to be given to our role in Afghanistan. We do not want a return to Taliban rule, even over a province. A Taliban-controlled area could protect extremists planning another terrorist atrocity against the West. Neither does the government of Afghanistan want an area beyond control and used as a base for another civil war.

Perhaps now is the time to ask – do we think we can be successful? The answer might well be ‘yes but with a much increased force’, in which case we need to be honest and judge if we can provide such an increase. It might mean further expenditure on defence. If we cannot do this, and unless we want to take the enormous risk of packing up and going home, we need to find another solution. Such a solution would have to recognise realities and do deals on the ground and may sit uneasily with our commitments to democracy. But there is no point risking and expending lives on an attrition strategy if it might all become too much in a year or so after little progress. It is not simply a case of military losses since civilians are being killed.

It would be better now to reassess. This does not mean abandon Afghanistan but means we take a hard look at what we need to do there.

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