Speech of the Week: Weakening the Taliban and strengthening the Afghan state

By: Information Daily Staff Writer
Published: Monday, August 3, 2009 - 23:55 GMT Jump to Comments

With the DFID support, the Afghan economy has grown at up to 10% most years since 2001 and growth is projected at 9% for 2009. The DFID Secretary in a recent speech to Carnegie Endowment highlighted the next steps in Afghan reconstruction.

Can I thank you for that kind introduction and say what a privilege it is to be able to speak here today at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – which ninety nine years after its establishment by my fellow countryman continues to enjoy an enviable reputation, here and abroad, for its international leadership on foreign and strategic affairs.

And let me also thank Jessica Matthews in particular for hosting us here this afternoon.

This is an institution rich in history but with a clear contemporary resonance, dedicated as it is to international peace and cooperation. So it is apt that my remarks today are focused on the situation in Afghanistan – the border of which was recently described by President Obama as “the most dangerous place in the world”.

I began the week in Afghanistan – first in Kabul where I met President Karzai and a number of his Ministers together with other candidates for the office of Presidency. Next, in Helmand, I met British and American Military Commanders, the Provincial Governor and teachers and doctors seeking to deliver basic services to the local population.

Reflecting on these conversations and many others has left me with a clear sense of how critical a moment this is for the future of Afghanistan.

More than seven years after the Taliban was removed from power, it has proved to be a summer of hard fighting on both sides of the Durand line. And while my remarks today are focused on Afghanistan, I recognise that we cannot achieve our goals in that country while our enemies operate from sanctuaries across that border, and for this reason we must support Pakistan in its efforts to fight extremism and terrorism within its borders.

In recent weeks, British, American and Afghan troops have been engaged in combat around Taliban strongholds in Helmand province.

At the same time, across the border, hundreds of soldiers have lost their lives in Pakistan’s offensive against militants in tribal areas and more than two million civilians in that country have been forced from their homes.

And yet at the same time, as I saw for myself when I met a group of first time voters in Musa Qala on Monday, across Afghanistan preparations are underway for Presidential elections in just three weeks time which will determine the political direction of the country for the next five years.

So I judged that this was an appropriate moment to come here to Washington, to discuss the development work we must undertake, if we are to align effectively the military, diplomatic and development efforts of the international community in pursuit of our shared goal of preventing the return of al-Queda to the base from which they launched their murderous attacks on September 11 2001.

This April, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a comprehensive UK strategy to improve stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, I want to suggest that, in line with that strategy, in addition to the continued and necessary military action and the diplomatic and political paths described by my colleague, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, on Monday at NATO, we must support these approaches with an even stronger and deeper development effort as an international community.

And as I will argue, that stronger and deeper development effort requires from the development community a new agenda for action – working more through the Afghan Government and less around it; strengthening sub-national governance; prioritising employment; and better coordinating international donor activity.

Underlying this challenging four-point agenda is a straightforward understanding: if we are to achieve our shared goals for greater security through a successful counter-insurgency strategy it is vital that we both strengthen the state and weaken the Taliban.

Military Progress

Of course Afghanistan today remains a highly insecure and violent place. Whilst in the north and the west of the country the situation is relatively more secure, in the south of Afghanistan, the number of violent incidents has risen significantly this year.

The insurgency is being countered militarily by a series of recent operations which aim to clear areas from Taliban control, secure them from attack, and then enable the Afghan authorities to bring basic services such as access to justice to the local people.

In recent weeks, we have seen a concerted offensive by British and American troops in Helmand through Operation Panther’s Claw and Operation Khanjar.

Operation Panther’s Claw – which launched five weeks ago in Helmand - has involved over 3,000 troops from the UK, Afghanistan, Denmark and Estonia. And as a result of the operation, up to 100,000 people – about 10% of the population of Helmand – will be brought back under Afghan government control.

The success of this operation will allow greater movement between the important centres of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk. It will allow many more people to be able to vote in the upcoming elections. And as Brigadier Tim Radford, Commander of Task Force Helmand, told me earlier in the week, within 48 hours of ground being taken by British forces, civilian stabilisation experts were beginning their work in the Babaji area: engaging with key leaders, organising community shuras and beginning the task of providing cash for work programmes.

So military progress has been made.

But that progress has come at a heavy price and I today want to pay fulsome and humble tribute to the actions and sacrifices of British, American and other coalition service men and women, alongside the Afghan armed forces and security services.

This week I have had the privilege of spending time with some of the members of the British Armed Forces who are on active service, and in meeting with these men and women of all ranks I was moved by both their continuing professionalism and their dedication to their mission in the face of great risks and real dangers.

The 42 country NATO Mission under UN mandate of which these brave men and women are part, is fundamental to the task of tackling the insurgency. Indeed it is only through sustained military pressure that the security conditions will be created for the political processes and developmental progress that are required.

These political processes are challenging to discuss but vital to deliver. Indeed both British and US military commanders, brave and battle hardened as they are, have themselves identified that there is ultimately no solely military solution to defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan.

In writing his observations on his time in Iraq, General David Petraeus noted that “success in a counterinsurgency requires more than just military operations” and indeed that “ultimate success depends on local leaders”.

Political Processes

That insight was echoed here in Washington in the confirmation hearing of General McChrystal, now the ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee in June. He stated – and I quote – that “we need to create in Afghanistan a state that would not allow the return of safe havens... I think that means it’s going to have to be a government that … may have some former Taliban.”

These views from military commanders have influenced the approaches of both President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Secretary Clinton, who yesterday welcomed and endorsed the approach set out by my colleague, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Monday, has herself made clear that we must support the Government of Afghanistan both to confront the extremists of al-Queda and the Taliban, and to separate them “from those who joined their ranks not out of conviction but out of desperation”.

Development needs

Both of our Governments understand that the desperation described by Secretary Clinton cannot solely be answered by military action or even political processes. It can, however, be answered by a comprehensive approach embracing development. For development can address the pent-up grievances, unrelenting poverty and lack of opportunity that contributes to people resorting to violence. And it is clear that today such desperation still remains widespread in Afghanistan.

For while our headlines and broadcasts inevitably and appropriately focus upon our armed forces’ engagement in the country, it is often forgotten that Afghanistan remains a desperately poor and unjust country. A legacy of poverty, civil war and warlordism coupled with the current Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency means over half of Afghans live below the poverty line, 40% remain unemployed, and violent incidents have risen by 60% in Helmand this year alone. Indeed to give just one example from Helmand, only two or three criminal cases are handled by the court in Gereshk each month.

It is little wonder therefore, that on Monday, when I met teachers in Musa Qala and farmers in Lashkar Gar, they all made the same single plea – for security. For so great is the fear and the threat of violence that security and justice matter as much, if not more, than the provision of other basic services in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans.

This prioritisation of security however, is not unique to Afghanistan. Indeed such views underpinned the World Bank’s 2000 “Voices of the Poor” Report, which captured the views of 60,000 poor people across the globe, and highlighted that safety, security and access to justice are among the top concerns for poor people, and highlighted the full detrimental impact that their absence has on the lives of the poor.

This is why in my Department’s newly published White Paper we place such a strong emphasis on getting the building blocks of security in place first in all fragile countries. And in the distinctive circumstances of Afghanistan, working to address the insecurity and impoverishment of the population is vital to our shared counter-insurgency efforts.

Strengthening the State

For the lack of security suffered by the population of Afghanistan is both a cause and a consequence of the poverty that underpins the desperation afflicting the Afghan population.

And while the presence of the international community to support the Afghan people resisting the insurgency is and will remain vital for some time, ultimately a stronger state at local and national level is required to deliver this basic security. The gradual replacement of international forces with the Afghan Army and police is therefore vital to ensure that security and justice are in place on a sustainable basis for the long-term.

Yet to sustain support and legitimacy the essential functions of any state must clearly extend beyond security.

So far from being peripheral to our shared mission, actions to strengthen the capacity of the state to deliver basic services to the population – including a stronger economy in which they can make a decent and lawful living - is central to our task. Such a comprehensive approach to building a more capable state is the surest foundation on which to convince local people in the areas affected by the insurgency to reject the Taliban and embrace a different future for their communities and country.

We should be in no doubt about the scale of these challenges in a nation where poverty is widespread, and where narcotics still encourages criminality and funds the insurgency. Yet nor should we be despondent. In less than a month we will see the first Afghan-led elections in a country where, as Rory Stewart of Harvard University recently reminded us, “every Afghan ruler in the 20th century was assassinated, lynched or deposed”.

And in recent years, since the last elections, there has been some progress in delivering services that improved the lives of many Afghans. The UN estimates that five million refugees have been able to return home since 2001. This year’s cereal harvest is likely to be a record. And, crucially, increasing numbers of girls and boys are going to school.

Education is of course a vital investment in the future of any community, but in Afghanistan it brings broader benefits to a society where insurgents are recruited among the illiterate and impoverished, and communities are isolated by generations of poverty and conflict.

So it is not coincidental that since 2007, the Taliban and its allies have bombed, burned or attacked more than 530 schools across the country. As Thomas Friedman described it in his New York Times column just last week, “this is the real war of ideas”. For Afghanistan is a country where, as the Education Minister told me, the insurgents still behead teachers to terrorise and intimidate them out of their work to educate girls. But just as the Taliban close schools down, we are helping Afghans to re-open them, as I saw for myself in Musa Qala on Monday. With international support, more than six million children are now enrolled in school in Afghanistan, up from nine hundred thousand boys under the Taliban when educating girls was deemed unlawful – and around a third of them are girls.

Other services have improved too. Basic healthcare now covers 82% of the country. 40,000 more Afghan children will see their fifth birthdays than in 2002. And women are starting to play a more active part in Afghan society. To take just one example, over 60% of the 450,000 Afghans benefiting from a small loans scheme which the UK supports are women.

So after the coming elections, we need to speed up the pace at which Afghans take responsibility for their own affairs, both civil and military. But we will not succeed unless the Afghan state wins its battle with the Taliban for the support and loyalty of the Afghan people.

And important though they are in themselves, and part though they are of our comprehensive approach to tackling the insurgency, better health and education will not be sufficient on their own to secure popular support and overcome decades of mistrust towards the state.

We know what concerns the Afghan people. Criminality and no redress from the justice system. Corruption, bribery and insecurity in a country where for too long in too many provinces the cultivation and processing of illegal narcotics has been the main source of economic activity. Afghans – like people everywhere – want stronger, more accountable and more responsive governance.

And the people of Afghanistan will next have the opportunity to choose their government in just under four weeks time. The outcome of these elections offers the international community a significant opportunity to better align its shared offer and better articulate its ask of the Afghan Government. And that agenda for shared action should cover four areas.

An Agenda for Shared Action

Firstly, the international community needs to do more through the Afghan government and less around it. Just 20% of international aid is currently channelled through Government systems. And the Government itself raises only 7% of national income in revenue – one of the lowest rates in the world. Just $750 million in national revenue for a population of 25 million. Indeed, the budget for the US Commanders Emergency Response Programme – which I support, because it is financing vital reconstruction work around the country – is greater than Afghanistan’s annual tax revenue. International donors currently provide 80% of the national budget, so it is in our common interest to ensure it is spent well, but also to help the Afghans raise more of their own revenue.

Some of the most important Ministries – including, but not only, Finance, Rural Development and Agriculture – are making real progress. The people of Afghanistan are entitled to see reformers backed and reinforced at the heart of an inclusive and representative political system. And we can expect that if they are, results will follow, because we have seen what has already been done in sectors like education.

As part of our support through government, we need to invest in the national institutions that can provide the checks and balances necessary to ensure the accountability and responsiveness of the government to its own people. Key anti-corruption bodies like the High Office for Oversight, and the Control and Audit Office need to be reinforced not to account to us - but to the people of Afghanistan. We need to support those mechanisms to empower citizens to demand real change.

So, I welcome the recent US decision to spend more through Afghan government systems. In particular I applaud Ambassador Holbrooke’s leadership on this front, and hope and anticipate that others will want to follow this lead.

Of course this approach carries risks – but the risks of not working to strengthen the state are greater still. For as we have seen elsewhere, the people of Afghanistan need to see their government, rather than foreign powers, delivering improvement. The bottom line is that the government in Afghanistan must outperform the Taliban in providing services, including security and justice to the people of that nation if the insurgents are to be rejected and the insurgency defeated.

Secondly, we need a government that can not just fulfil the core national level functions effectively, but also deliver services and maintain the rule of law at the provincial and district level. Given the history, size and diversity of Afghanistan, power and authority has to be delegated to the local level. But this has to be done within a consistent national framework both so that people have a sense of their nation as a whole, and so that what government does responds to varying local circumstances and priorities.

This means sorting out the roles, responsibilities and accountability of Governors, line ministries, and local councils – and how they are all supported by the donor funded Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Provincial and District Governors need to be appointed on the basis of their ability to do the job, and given the resources they need to deliver policing, justice, basic services and employment opportunities to their citizens.

Anyone who doubts the importance of this needs only to visit Helmand as I have done this week, where with Governor Mangal’s leadership the province has had a record wheat harvest this year, in part because, with funding from my Department, his Food Zone programme has helped persuade 32,000 farmers to plant wheat rather than poppy.

Thirdly, we need to focus more attention on economic growth and critically the creation of legal livelihoods and jobs. In the immediate term, four out of ten working age Afghans are in need of work today, and in the longer term, as we undermine the insurgency militarily and politically, former fighters will need to be reintegrated into legal livelihoods and local communities.

As Ambassador Holbrooke has said, the sector with the best potential to create the millions of new jobs the country needs is agriculture. We should all get behind the Government’s efforts to deliver a critical mass of the services and inputs like seeds and fertilisers that producers need.

There is a platform on which these initiatives can build. The Afghan economy has grown at up to 10% most years since 2001. And even in 2009, in the midst of the global downturn, growth is projected at 9%. Accelerating growth requires first the maintenance of macroeconomic stability, with advice and support from the IMF and the World Bank. It also requires policy change to make it easier to start a business and safeguard property rights, together with a sustained effort to build better national and local infrastructure – especially power, water and roads – so that producers can reach markets within and beyond the country’s borders.

Finally, progress on each of these vital agenda items will be slowed by fragmentation and accelerated by better co-ordination of the international aid effort. The Afghan National Development Strategy, launched in Paris last year, provides the framework for these efforts. It is natural – and right – that the countries contributing troops to the ISAF effort should want to focus part of their effort in the provinces and districts where their soldiers are serving.

In Helmand, along with our immediate stabilisation work backing up our troops, my Department is delivering jobs, infrastructure, health and education services in the province.

But we all need to provide support at the national level too to ensure that hard won tactical military success contributes to strategic progress on our broader objectives. The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, under Kai Eide’s patient and experienced leadership, has the key role to play. Over 50 countries and many international organisations have pledged help to Afghanistan. All of our efforts will be more effective if we allow the UN to play a stronger co-ordinating role in the time ahead.


This agenda for action – working more through the Afghan Government and less around it; strengthening sub-national governance; prioritising employment; and better coordinating international donor activity – is straightforward to articulate but will be hard to deliver. The agenda is clear but so too is the challenge. But I believe it is a challenge to which the international community must now rise.

The service and sacrifice of our armed forces in Afghanistan has been immense. But that heavy cost has been borne because what happens in Afghanistan matters to us all. Strengthening and deepening our development efforts is a vital part of our comprehensive approach to countering and defeating the insurgency.

In Afghanistan we face common challenges and share a common commitment. And if we together now take the right steps we will not only help the people of Afghanistan secure their future, but ours as well. That is our shared challenge. That is our shared responsibility. And working together, that must be our shared achievement.



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