Hague’s retreat from ten years of blood, toil and money in Afghanistan

by Khalid Mahmood

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, believes he has come up with the groundbreaking policy to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. He now argues that we can negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. Rather, Mr Hague should, as something of an historian, give some consideration to the events that have led us to where we are today.

The Taliban were a product of the Mujahidin’s uprising against the Soviet Union’s forces in the 1980s. Enjoying the support of the Saudis, the CIA and the Pakistani ISI, they caused huge damage to the Soviet forces, killing thousands and fatally undermining the previously fearsome reputation of the red army.  When the Soviets withdrew, the West and its allies left the Mujahidin and its remnants to its own devices. From the ashes of this unhappiness rose the so called Taliban, who wanted to run the Afghan state according to their twisted interpretation of Sharia law. This interpretation led to the summary executions of men, women and children whose behaviour or beliefs fell short of the Taliban’s exacting standards. We all remember the scenes at the national football stadium in Kabul when a woman knelt on the stadium ground and had a bullet shot through her head. This, along with many other atrocities, was the Taliban’s compliance with Sharia law.

These events did not overly concern us in the west until after September 11 and the integration of Al Qaeda with the Taliban. It was only then that we resolved that action needed to taken to counter the threat to democracies posed by Taliban and the Al Qaeda training camps. We started our campaign by supporting the Northern Alliance to take on the Taliban, before installing Hamid Karzai as president. Elections were then held which proudly claimed the participation of 6 million Afghans. In reality, they were fixed by either Karzai’s henchman or by war lords, at a price of course.

Now that Mr Hague wants to negotiate with the Taliban, I would urge him to consider the following: the Taliban are by definition those who believe in their own “pure” version of Sharia law; how does he intend to negotiate and on what principals of Sharia will the discussions be based? What negotiation will he have with the Taliban as to allowing girls to attend schools or young women to continue in education? What negotiations will he have on allowing women to work and take part in political activities? What guarantees will he seek that the Taliban will not reengage with Al Qaeda? How will he ensure that the very weak government of Karzai stays in power once NATO forces have left? How will he prevent many of the trained Afghan police and soldiers defecting to the Taliban when they see that even we are negotiating with them?

All that a negotiation strategy will do is confirm that we have wasted ten years of effort, resources and above all the lives of many of our brave soldiers. Rather, in order to develop a successful exist strategy, we must change the political structure of the country. The only way forward is to engage with the current pretender to the Afghan throne, crown prince Ahmad Shah Khan, the son of the popular former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. He has the potential to act as a figurehead for the whole country and can unite the disparate groups that make up Afghan society.

If we in the West paid more attention to the cultural habits of Afghans, we would see their respect for the late king. The West has been trying to build a twenty first century Afghanistan, despite political conditions on the ground resembling the eighteenth. Our attempts to impose a democratic culture on Afghanistan have so far led to little progress. Afghanistan needs a unifying figure who all the major groups can work with. This is clearly not the case with Karzai. Any exit strategy is dependent upon a proper assessment of the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, including the war lords and their territorial commands, the re-emergence of the Taliban and what future military support will be required by the Afghan government.

Our battles in the provinces were never going to succeed. Every mistake we have made in terms of civilian casualties and damaging infrastructure has created more Talibans. Our strategy should be based on empowering strong individuals to lead local populations, not having brave soldiers from the UK, USA, France, Germany, Canada etc policing a vast and complex country.

Mr Hague has come up with this botched and ill considered policy due to a botched and ill considered defence review. This review will leave the UK under-equipped to continue with foreign adventures like the operations in Afghanistan. Mr Hague knows that when the review and its incumbent costs come into force we will not be able to sustain our existing commitment to Afghanistan.  Mr Hague must be honest with the people of the UK, our heroic armed forces personnel and the families of those soldiers who have died in combat. He should admit that this is a policy dictated by financial considerations on the basis of decisions made by this Tory-Lib Dem government and not in the interests of security of the UK, the people of Afghanistan or our armed forces.

The risk is that any negotiations with the Taliban will be little more than a discussion on the terms of our retreat. Which will not be sufficient return for ten years of blood, toil and money.

Khalid Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr.

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2 Responses to “Hague’s retreat from ten years of blood, toil and money in Afghanistan”

  1. Henrik says:

    It is rather unfortunate that a Labour MP sees the resolution of the appalling mess his party made of Operation HERRICK as an opportunity for political point-scoring.

    Just to refresh everyone’s memories, here – the reason why we’ve ended up dragged into the bottomless swamp of foreign intervention in Afghanistan is solidly down to the last government and its confused, strategically illiterate, militarily ignorant and altogether ill-conceived attempt to…. do you know, to this day I’m not sure, the strategic aim, when stated, moved around so much. I *think* it was something to do with getting Afghan women to vote, or add 1p to the street price of heroin, or do something with all that DfID money, or perhaps to keep M Karzai Esq and his countless kleptomaniac rellies in power. There was some talk that slotting angry farmers in Helmand might prevent terrorism in Tipton, as well, but that seemed to come and go.

    This has been a profoundly useless waste of our blood and treasure – all of our blood and treasure, the USA, France, Germany, Denmark, Canada, all the contributors. As I recall it, the original imperative behind the Afghan intervention in 2001 was simple: shut down AQ in-country, in order to do which it was necessary to remove the Taliban government which was protecting that organisation. Various specialist Western organisations helped the Northern Alliance do that, the camps were dismantled and AQ variously killed, taken prisoner or driven over the border. Job done, at least until someone, somewhere, figured that, having trashed what was left of the country after a long civil war and an occupation by the USSR, it would be a wizard wheeze to reconstruct the place and turn it into a flourishing secular liberal Western democracy. That’s four adjectives and a noun which have never applied to Afghanistan and which never will.

    The UK strategic aim now is quite simple and consistent – get out without losing too much face and hope the civil war doesn’t start immediately. In re the Taliban, it’s probably a bit simplistic to use that label indiscriminately – while pretty much all Taliban are insurgents, it’s by no means the case that all insurgents are Taliban; while some, even the majority may be devout and militant Muslims, that by no means implies that all support some of the more ignorant and unschooled elements of Talib theology – and many more are simply local folk, fed up with foreigners trampling all over their lives. My reading of what the Foreign Sec had to say was that it’s necessary to engage with all those insurgents *capable* of functioning in an eventual pluralist post-withdrawal state.

  2. ‘Talebin’ is a much misused word that is used to describe the insurrection in general.

    In fact the insurrection is a mainly Pashtun thing of which the Taliban are a part along with al-Quada, Haqqani and several other loosely allied anti-Kharzai anti-Northern Alliance organisations.

    Hague is probably guilty of using ‘Taliban’ in order to simplify his intentions when he really means ‘Pashtun Resistance’. The aim will probably be to force a split between al-Quada and the rest of the insurectees, then the extremist Taliban and the rest of the insurrectees, and to try to get the mainstream of the Pashtuns ‘on side’ with Kabul. He’s a cleverer man than evryone since Alexander the Great if he manages.

    But you originating from Kashmir/Pakistan and as such from a neighbouring area to Afghanistan have the ability via family connections etc to get a proper opinion from the people that really count – those that live there, in particular the Pashtuns.

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