Afghanistan: The Dangers of Happy TalkFebruary 10th, 2012
One of the good innovations by the new government in foreign affairs is the quarterly report to Parliament on Afghanistan. It is a pity, therefore, that as far as I know there was no advance notice of the latest one, and that it seems to be a substitute for proper debate about the situation in the country. William Hague introduced the latest report by saying it was a ‘review of progress’ – and true to his word he only told us how well things were going (using the word ‘progress’ nine times).
You wouldn’t know from the report that western nations are announcing unilateral and divergent dates for pulling out of combat (British troops are according to today’s statement to be fighting for some 18 months after the Americans) or that Pakistan is at risk of going into freefall. Both are directly relevant to the situation today. As Paddy Ashdown has written in the Times, and Anatol Lieven in the New York Review of Books, to name two, we are at a perilous moment for the whole Afghan mission.
There are many points that deserve real debate. The Foreign Secretary rightly lauded the extraordinary bravery and intelligence of British and other troops. They want people to know what is being pursued and achieved. But they are the first to say that ‘happy talk’ on the home front does them no service at all.
The recently leaked NATO study of interrogations of Taliban prisoners made for difficult reading. But it is good that NATO is addressing critically the real situation in the country. The Foreign Secretary talked about the pledges at December’s Bonn Conference – but most observers saw the Conference as a complete failure. He talked about the growth of the Afghan Security Forces – but said nothing about the ethnic tensions within the armed forces and between the ANSF and the Pashtuns (nor how the forces are to be paid for after withdrawal). He talked about the conditions for Taliban leadership to be part of the future of the country – but I would have liked to see confidence building measures and substantive proposals on governance. He applauded agreements with the Afghan government – but there was, incredibly, no mention of the word ‘corruption’.
The truth I fear is that the West has less and less leverage on the Afghan end game. That leaves our troops more and more exposed. And it demands far more vision, clarity, unity and determination about the politics of our engagement.