Defence Chief - Afghanistan is not all about fighting

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

As we prepare for security transition, the military element is not the most important part of our contribution to Afghanistan, writes Chief of the Defence staff, General Sir David Richards.

The years between now and the end of UK combat operations in 2014 are going to shape our relationship with both Afghanistan and the wider region.

As we prepare for transition and the military demands this will impose, it is worth remembering that the military element is not the most important part of our contribution.

It is, indeed, only the supporting element to the wider governance and development operations that are ongoing and will continue long after combat forces have left.

In 2006, I took command of ISAF and since then I have visited Afghanistan many times. I have met officials from our own country, our allies and most importantly Afghanistan. I have seen many changes, not least in the way the Afghan government and people have managed their affairs.

The most obvious have been in the security arena. The increase in size and capability of both the army and police leave me encouraged and hopeful. Though the essential prerequisite, Defence’s contribution is only the outer garment of the transformation of the body politic; the real change is in the fabric of society.

In the past six years, more than 26,000 community development councils have been set up to give local people a voice in improving infrastructure and basic services, and to channel central government and donor spending.

This marks a step change in rural accountability, and more than 50,000 locally generated projects in agriculture, education, health, irrigation, power, public buildings and transport have followed. The impact on both local development and, by association, security should not be underestimated.

In Afghanistan’s agricultural economy, where more than a third of GDP and more than four-fifths of employment comes from the fields, enabling sustainable economics through licit means is vital to turning society.

This is why the military, whether ISAF or British, have been so interested in alternative livelihoods - alternatives, that is, to poppy-growing and the violence that draws with it.

Substituting poppy is not just good for the governance of the region, but also the economy. One example is pomegranates. More than 40,000 pomegranate trees were planted in 2009, and more than three times as many a year later.

They have the benefit of not only yielding higher-value cash crops for farmers, but also after three years their foliage is wide enough to prevent poppies being grown on the same ground. As processing capabilities develop, the foreign profit available will multiply and encourage others.

This kind of alternative removes two evils: first, the obvious harm that opium addiction does to communities, let alone the problems heroin causes around the world, is ended; second, it removes the criminality and challenges to community authority that the narcotics market attracts.

We cannot ignore the magnetic draw of drugs profits, so assisting farmers to resist pressure is essential if we are to push back the Taliban.

But the alternative livelihood options are not simply in the realm of horticulture or better cash crops. With the doubling of the wheat price the requirement for farmers to feed themselves from their own crops has grown.

Other options are being explored in the geology of the country. While the abundance of copper deposits is well known, the confluence of three tectonic plates in the Afghan hills has pushed many minerals and so-called rare earths to near the surface. US geologists have claimed that reserves may approach $1 trillion.

Clearly this would represent an alternative to the slavery into which narcotics producers put so many of their compatriots.

As the Prime Minister has said, the end of our combat operations will not mark the end of our commitment to Afghanistan. But nor can we simply wait to the end of 2014 before we transition our efforts and focus on the vital work DFID and other international donors are doing.

Alternative livelihoods and development assistance are as important as the determination and courage of our forces. Together they are a powerful combination that will leave an enduring legacy for the Afghan people, the region and international community.

We will leave a legacy that properly reflects 14 years of sacrifice and effort, that achieves our national security goals, and of which we can all be proud.

This article by General Sir David Richards first appeared in the Independent newspaper.