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Making the case for Afghanistan

Politicians can raise concerns about the Afghan conflict – but they have a duty to make the case for our role there to the nation.

All night long a fierce struggle had raged from house to house and in the alleys of this mud labyrinth. The assailants knew every inch of the ground perfectly. They were fighting in their own kitchens and parlours. The defenders simply hung on where they could, in almost total darkness, without the slightest knowledge of ground or buildings.

So wrote Winston Churchill about his experiences with the Malakand Field Force in 1897. The fighting taking place today is often at close quarters with small arms and engaging an enemy that knows the terrain very well. Not much has changed since, we might conclude, after a sad week with many lives lost in our forces in Afghanistan.

It is depressing that it has taken the death of so many soldiers to reawaken the debate about our aims in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the debate can be a healthy one if political posturing is avoided, and we all have a responsibility to engage in it. There are no easy choices and advocates of withdrawal, such as Peter Preston, need to provide a much more robust analysis of the security implications of such a move, both for Afghanistan and with regard to the terrorist threat at home. There is still a need to think through our strategy, however.

In contrast with Churchill's experience, we are not in the region for some destructive Empire demonstration of force, what used to be crudely called "butcher and bolt". The international forces are in Afghanistan to ensure al-Qaida does not regain a foothold and to ensure the Afghan people have the space to build some government infrastructure. They are fighting hard and taking great risks to achieve these aims.

The prime minister, in his statement to the House of Commons on 13 July, stated this broad aim clearly. The strategy (how we direct military and political engagement) has sometimes been confused in debate with tactics (how our commanders handle forces in battle). The strategy has often been obscured. When I wrote in Tribune magazine in 2006 and 2007 calling for a defined political strategy, we had not been long in Helmand and enabling the Afghan army to disrupt the heroin trade seemed to be important. We hear little of that now. We do hear about the need to increase development, but that requires some degree of security. The government must articulate a clear political strategy with the Afghan government and its other international partners.

Three years ago soldiers had insufficient appropriate equipment and this remained the case for too long. The situation has improved to some extent, for example with the use of Mastiff armoured vehicles. Forces need more helicopters and more soldiers in combat roles. Helicopters play a useful role since they not only provide safer transportation but they also increase the options available.

The Guardian's panel of experts is right to focus on the number of soldiers in the area, both international and Afghan. At the moment we have just over 9,000 troops in Helmand, but this probably means there are less than half actually engaged in combat roles. If, after the Afghanistan elections, we give up the ground we are now gaining we will have set back any aims to win hearts and minds. Local Afghans will sensibly conclude that international forces are not willing to commit the necessary power and will not be around for long, in contrast to the Taliban. The US "surge" in Iraq demonstrated that a focused effort by a large number of soldiers can change a situation to create the space for local forces to take over. This will not be easy in Afghanistan, where the national army is not yet large enough nor is the government infrastructure sufficiently in place for an easy repeat of the Iraq experience.

There are financial implications, as Larry Elliott has illustrated. We are in a recession in the UK, with the prospect of lower government spending growth when it is over. Yet we should answer the questions Elliott poses: if we need to increase defence spending further to maintain our national security and fulfil international objectives in Afghanistan, we should do so.

Our activities in Afghanistan are not being properly communicated and much of the debate is occurring in a vacuum. At home, we see the casualties but we do not see what they and their colleagues have been achieving. There will be security issues to consider when releasing information but the Ministry of Defence should explain the current engagement much more clearly.

Politicians have a duty to raise their concerns about the conflict and the resourcing of our forces. Since there is broad agreement among the parties about our role in Afghanistan, they also have a responsibility to make the case for that role to the nation at large.

This article previously appeared on the Guardian's Comment is Free web site.
Stephen Beer, Tuesday 14 July 2009

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