Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Submission by Colonel (retired) Christopher Langton OBE, Senior Fellow for Conflict, the International Institute for Strategic Studies

  The United Kingdom's military involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan began in 2001. The original objective and rationale for the deployment of troops was in order to dislodge the Taliban regime which was hosting international terrorist organisations which posed, and still do, a direct threat to UK national security. The need to remain involved in order to prevent a return to the "status quo ante bellum" has meant that other missions have emerged. Principally these involve nation-building in order to allow a legitimate government to take full control of all aspects of governance and the rule of law; and dealing with aspects of counter insurgency such as the illicit trade in drugs.

The ousted Taliban and other non-state militant groups with jihadist tendencies have been able to re-locate themselves in "safe havens" in Pakistan with relative ease. In the same way it should be considered probable that international terrorist elements would return to Afghanistan should the opportunity arise. Although there is a question—"how likely is it that a new Taliban regime in Afghanistan would allow itself to host al-Qaeda and affiliates given the consequences it suffered before in 2001?" But if the assumption is that there is a high probability that this would happen, the deployment of international forces remains essential as a buffer against the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a state held hostage by terrorist groups. The question is "are international forces, military and civilian, being used correctly with emphasis being placed in the right areas?" A second question is "what if the UK objective is to prevent Afghanistan returning to its previous state". It must be expected that troops will have to be committed in significant quantities for some time to come. Such is the nature of counter insurgency operations which aim to capture human rather than geographical territory. Troops are enablers in this respect and not the deliverers of a final result. This lies in the hands of other agencies which provide the means for a nation shattered by 30 years of war to govern itself.

  The UK military component is stretched. It is less obvious that the civilian agencies are operating at the levels of commitment on the ground, which are required by the mission. It is appreciated that this is easier said than done. However, it is the civilian component which provides the means that will eventually enable a reduction in military effort.

  The UK remains the lead G8 partner nation in the fight against the illicit trade in drugs. So far there has been little real progress towards a sustainable reduction in poppy cultivation and heroin production. One reason is that, yet again, there is disagreement among donors on how to deal with the problem. A common strategy has to be found and implemented. At the same time it is argued that the whole trade has to be tackled and not just the "production" end. More should be invested in dealing with the problem in transit and in the market. To attack the "business model" of traffickers is more likely to produce results than an attempt to reduce cultivation alone. Neighbouring countries such as Iran have a vested interest in this respect and should be involved. But drugs are not the sole means of income for the insurgency; the "black market" generally produces the income needed by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. This includes human trafficking, and trafficking in luxury goods amongst other forms of revenue production. Perhaps a holistic approach to the financing of the insurgency should be examined. Furthermore, corrupt officials and others not involved directly with insurgents receive a large percentage of the money made through the traffic and have yet to be dealt with. Trafficking benefits from weak border security. The borders of Afghanistan are poorly controlled. Due to topography total security can never be achieved. But it can be considered feasible that the main trade routes used by an increasing volume of container traffic can be better managed. This requires co-operation with neighbours and particularly with Pakistan which hosts the emerging container port of Gwadar.

  Afghanistan's poor relations with Pakistan make this difficult and heighten tensions making cross-border insurgency and smuggling easier. It can be argued that the UK is uniquely positioned to improve the poor relationship with Pakistan being a member of the Commonwealth and closely connected to the large diaspora in this country. Yet this fact heightens Kabul's suspicions of UK intentions—at least rhetorically. However, the UK relationship with both Pakistan and India is important too with respect to Afghanistan as Islamabad accuses New Delhi of establishing a presence in what it calls its "strategic depth"—namely Afghanistan. The role of the UK in calming tensions between India and Pakistan remains increasingly vital in this context as well as the historical sense.

  There is confusion in Afghan governmental circles over the myriad of policies and strategies being adopted by different international donors. The lack of a common strategy hinders progress and a unified military command is long overdue. The adoption of unilateral country approaches to aspects of the overall mission confuses and gives rise to suspicion. For example, the UK has been criticised for its approach to operations in Helmand and for negotiating with insurgent elements.

  It was hoped that the appointment of Kai Eide as UN Special Representative would bring more cohesion to the international effort. This has not happened to date and the profile of the UN as the one international body capable of energising nation-building remains small. Questions have been asked as to why some of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) do not fall under the UN. It is possible that a "blue beret" presence would provide less grounds for insurgents to claim they are fighting "invaders" and thus remove one of their main recruiting slogans.

  A political settlement in Afghanistan is a long way from being achieved. The Taliban have some constituency and eventually an accommodation may have to be found as is frequently the case in this type of conflict. But the current terms of the Quetta Shura are unacceptable to Kabul. Attempts to find common ground should continue to be sought as an outright victory is unlikely to be brought about by the current Afghan government and its allies. This year is likely to be crucial in deciding a political future for Afghans; and it is essential that elections—if held—are successful. The Taliban will concentrate on disrupting the process and it is assessed that there is voter fatigue as well as dissatisfaction with the failures of government to improve the lives of people. Perhaps a more flexible approach to the electoral process should be found. The Single Non-Transferable Voting system is vulnerable to disruption. Afghans have their own form of traditional democracy based on the Shura at village level. This system has lost its traditional power during the period since 2001; but to allow some voting through this mechanism could bring back authority at a local level and allow more people to vote.

  Finally, a crucial role for the UK is in its diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan, and Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a growing sense that these tensions could run out of control. For this reason and the prevention of a re-emergence of international terrorist bases the UK and allies have to remain committed to the Afghanistan mission. This will take time and resources and some re-examination of policy and strategy. Arguably that policy and strategy should be better co-ordinated with allies.

14 January 2009

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