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Afghanistan - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 4th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:55 pm, 4th September 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for securing this debate on the prospects for peace in Afghanistan and for opening it so effectively. She has a long track record of involvement in Afghanistan, as have the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich.

The action in Afghanistan in 2001 had international support, unlike that in Iraq later on. I recall my noble and much lamented friend Lord Garden—with a depth of experience drawn from his long service in the Armed Forces and his strategic overview from heading Chatham House—saying in 2006 that sustained engagement in Afghanistan would need to last at least 30 years, if not much longer. Yet, as he predicted, it was not long before countries were pulling back, in part distracted by Iraq. NATO allies in Afghanistan never worked properly in concert with each other.

My noble friend Lord Ashdown—again with wide experience, particularly of the Balkans—emphasised that the first aim of the country must be to achieve security. Only then could the country be rebuilt. That security has not been achieved and the country has not been rebuilt.

There have been occasional bouts of optimism. I recall the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, confidently predicting the eradication of the poppy harvest by around 2012. Some politicians seem to claim that troops can be brought home, as the job is done. For others it has been a source of pessimism, or an area of the world they do not wish to think about.

I note that the current Defence Secretary is now emphasising the number of homegrown possible terrorists who go to Afghanistan to train and then return to the United Kingdom, posing a threat to us here. He doubtless wishes to convey that Afghanistan matters to the UK and is not some far-away conflict that need not trouble us. However, there is little public appetite for engagement. So much of our current political discourse is taken up with Brexit that little else surfaces.

There have been so many debates about development being essential to peace in Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, pointed to its strengths—but also to how flawed its delivery often is. Initially, it was argued that it was too difficult to defend the rights of women. Hillary Clinton made it plain that half the population could not be excluded and, eventually, it came to a point where about the only gain in Afghanistan was in the rights of women. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, indicated, this had its limitations.

Clearly the American engagement in Afghanistan is of vital significance and Trump is, of course, very unpredictable. Anthony Cordesman describes Afghanistan as a war of attrition. He argues that the peace talks are an extension of war by other means. He states:

“If the US has any real strategy in Afghanistan, it seems to be fighting a war of attrition long enough and well enough for the threat to drop to a level that Afghan forces can handle or accept a peace settlement credible enough for the US to leave”.

He goes on to argue that after 17 years of combat,

“no one at any level is claiming that enough military progress has been made in strengthening the ANSF enough for it to win”.

He also maintains:

“No one is making any serious claims about success at the civil level in terms of politics, governance, and economics”.

Noble Lords have indicated that perhaps more progress has been made there than he suggests. Cordesman continues:

“Hope for the civil side seems to rely on the theory that if you attempt enough reform plans, one may eventually work. This is a literal triumph of hope over experience”.

He notes “deeply disturbing parallels” between the current situation in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, pointing out:

“The North Vietnamese understood that they could keep fighting and win once the U.S. left … The U.S. underestimated the outside support North Vietnam would continue to receive. It … overestimated how well the South Vietnamese forces could hold on”.

In addition, in the US at the time, there was,

“a near denial of how badly divided the Vietnamese government was, how corrupt and ineffective the government was at both the civil and military levels, the level of economic strain on the country and government, and how ineffective the shell of a democracy was in actually motivating and uniting the people”.

We can see why he sees parallels.

I pay tribute to the NGOs and other agencies that noble Lords have mentioned which continue to work in Afghanistan, often against the odds. I read with enormous interest the latest issue of the Conciliation Resources publication Accord, entitled “Incremental Peace in Afghanistan”. Editors Anna Larson and Alexander Ramsbotham describe,

“the need for a radical change in approach to move beyond peace rhetoric in Afghanistan through a progressive, step-by-step process towards political settlement, which builds stability, confidence and legitimacy over time”.

They argue for two phased objectives. The first, in the short term, is to reduce violence, which they state,

“inevitably involves a central role for the conflict parties, principally the Taliban and the Afghan government”.

Their second, long-term, objective is,

“to achieve a more broadly inclusive social contract representative of all Afghans which is only achievable with involvement and ultimately endorsement across Afghan society”,

to which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred. This strikes me as depressingly familiar, if clearly right. The authors argue that drivers of conflict include a well-established war economy. The Taliban and the Afghan Government fight on, having secured sufficient external backing on both sides to do so. Underlying the violence are,

“persistent political disputes over how power is shared and how future reforms are configured”.

Yet, perhaps encouragingly, most parties acknowledge that war can end only through a negotiated settlement. President Ghani’s offer to the Taliban of a political process is of course welcome—other noble Lords have referred to it. The Taliban appears divided on this and some pro-government Afghans do not want to share political power or fear compromise on human rights. Women’s rights might be a casualty.

The Accord authors also point to the need to balance the centre and periphery. They note that previous sub-national peace efforts have often been undermined by resistance from central government and from Taliban central leadership. No one wants to cede power.

Despite these failures, the Accord authors suggest that local initiatives could be a place to start. What support are the Government giving to President Ghani’s peace initiatives, including his offer of dialogue with the Taliban and subsequent offers of ceasefires? What steps are the UK taking to encourage the Taliban leadership and the movement more broadly to move towards a political dialogue with the Afghan Government? How do the UK Government plan to work with partners to build momentum in these areas? What is the Government’s strategy if the Taliban leadership does not seriously enter negotiations? What other routes to peace are being pursued? How do we ensure that peace processes are inclusive so that women as well as men are involved, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, emphasised?

The conflict in Afghanistan has proved extremely intractable, but we cannot walk away. Perhaps the main hope should be that this seemed also to be the case also in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans and in Vietnam itself. Conflict is not inevitable, even if the interests of some in Afghanistan and elsewhere seem to be in its perpetuation rather than its cessation.