Today we pray that there will no more murders in Afghanistan, as many try to go to the polls. Our soldiers have been courageous and hard working, in an effort to offer security ahead of the election. The coalition needs the election to be as free and as fair as possible. Above all we need a result which carries conviction that it is the will of the Afghan people, producing a government with some authority.
Yesterday Sky invited me in to interview me about the war. They had read a few things on this blog which interested them. I explained I was not a specialist in the way I am on economic and financial matters, but was happy to ask some of the necessary questions about what the UK is seeking to do and what we might do next. They conducted a probing and intelligent interview without any of the usual BBC tricks of putting words into my mouth, making up views I or the Conservatives do not hold or trying to get quotes they could use out of context to prove a Labour smear. It was refreshing and much more grown up.
I argued that the UK government’s mission was now concerned with state building. Our troops are trying to win and hold territory so that the civilian power of the Kabul based national government can extend to parts of the country where other forces have been powerful. The immediate task is to create sufficiently safe streets and polling stations so people feel they can go to vote without harm. I suggested that once a new government was established following the election the UK and its allies needed to talk urgently about the timetable for transfer of more and more of these security functions to the Afghan army and police, appreciating the need for training and reform.
The interviewer pointed out that the government said we were in Afghanistan to make the streets of London safe. He reminded me that a recent report by MPs who had studied this complained of mission creep, and thought there were dangers in pledging wide ranging state building. I think we are already well into the state building mission, as the desire to facilitate elections demonstrates. I find the government’s argument about the safety of the streets of London difficult to accept. If that is the sole aim, why aren’t our troops told just to concentrate on those people thought to be planning international travel, and those camps known to be training grounds for international terror? Doesn’t such an exercise require more intelligence work and less fighting? And why is such intervention limited to Afghanistan when we know there are other countries that are training grounds for international terrorists?
The latest problem the government is encountering from its critics is over the conduct of the present Afghan government. If the UK role is to buttress the power of the incumbent government, to help it to govern more widely and effectively, critics can point to any one of a number of policies the Afghan government follows which we do not like and ask why we are supporting this? It is one of the hazards of supporting the emergence of democracy in a foreign country, that they might elect a government you do not like which does things you find unacceptable. If your troops are risking their lives to allow that government to govern, do you then have a right to demand that they change policies and laws you do not like? How do you intervene to prevent illegitimate and violent challenges to the civil powers, without stifling opposition and dissent? It is difficult and sensitive work. In the end you only succeed in helping create a democracy on the day the civil power no longer needs foreign troops to keep the peace.