“May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.”
Those aren’t my words. They were said by someone rather more important who had detailed firsthand experience of Afghanistan – Alexander the Great.
I wanted to open my remarks with that quotation to make the point that Afghanistan has never been an easy place for outsiders, wherever they came from. The Persians knew that. The Russians discovered that.
And the British know that too from our own history. Rudyard Kipling, the poet of the Empire, believed in British imperialism. But even he didn’t believe much in intervening in Afghanistan. In one of his darkest poems he wrote:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your God like a soldier”.
So the first question you might ask – and many people in the UK do ask it – is this: why is Britain engaged in Afghanistan at all?
The answer is simple: Afghanistan matters too much for us to ignore it.
It matters first and foremost to our security. We went into Afghanistan after 9/11 to stop the country from being a safe haven for international terrorists, and if Afghanistan were again to become such a haven it will threaten not just its neighbours but also the UK.
It matters strategically, because an unstable Afghanistan would threaten this whole region and our friends in this region, including India.
And it matters on a political and deeply personal level, because over the last decade or so the UK has spent a great deal of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Our operations there have cost us billions of pounds. Since those operations started, over 400 of our brave servicemen and women have been killed in Afghanistan. We are determined to ensure that the heavy price they paid produces an outcome worthy of their sacrifice.
And that is why – a point I want to emphasise to you today - the UK is not leaving Afghanistan after 2014. Our combat troops are leaving: they will almost all go by the end of this year. But Afghanistan is too important and still too fragile to be abandoned by us or the rest of the international community. So Britain will stay deeply engaged there for the foreseeable future.
We will continue to help ensure Afghanistan’s security. We can only protect our own security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. So the UK is supporting the development of the Afghan National Army. We are providing mentoring and training for the ANA Officer Academy near Kabul, popularly known as “Sandhurst in the Sand”. We will also contribute significant funding after 2014 to sustain the ANA.
We will continue to help promote Afghanistan’s development. The UK will provide over $300m per year in development assistance until at least 2017 to ensure that progress already made is not lost.
We will continue to support Afghanistan’s democracy. With India and others, we played an active role in helping hold the recent successful elections. We are helping build the Afghan institutions that can ensure good governance, the rule of law, accountability and lasting stability.
So what are the prospects for Afghanistan? Good, if we stay the course.
We are making progress. Security is now almost entirely in the hands of the Afghan National Army. It is now the ANA, not the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, who are today playing the lead role in protecting almost the entire Afghan population. It was the ANA who provided the security for the recent successful election.
Economic progress is visible across the country: Afghanistan’s GDP has increased tenfold since 2001 and Kabul is a thriving commercial hub.
Education is improving: over 6m Afghan children are now in school, including over 2m girls – and if there is a single magic bullet for successful development, it is to educate girls.
Health is improving: life expectancy has risen by 18 years in just one decade.
And governance is improving: this year’s Presidential election will be the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Afghanistan in living memory. The election has shown that Afghans themselves are committed to a democratic future. The fact that so many voters - 7.5m of them - turned out to vote despite the threats of violence speaks volumes about the Afghans’ wish to determine their own future. And more and more Afghans outside the country are voting with their feet and returning home: over 5 million so far.
Does all this mean that the peace process will be easy? No – all peace processes are long, complex and bumpy: this one will be no exception.
But is it possible to achieve a more stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan? Yes – provided we work together to help achieve it.
In that endeavour India has a central role to play. India has vital interests in Afghanistan. It has a huge stake in ensuring that Afghanistan is stable and peaceful, and does not export terrorism to India or instability to the wider region.
And India has influence in Afghanistan that other countries don’t. India has the trust of the Afghan people: opinion polls regularly show that India is the most highly regarded by Afghans of any foreign country. India’s proximity and size means it will be a key actor in the country over the coming years.
India’s prosperity and close trading links with Afghanistan mean it will be crucial in helping develop and sustain the country’s economy. India’s $2bn aid programme is playing a major role in the development of Afghanistan, both in terms of large infrastructure projects like power and roads, but also in smaller local projects which promote agriculture, education and health.
Just as important as what the Indian government is doing in Afghanistan is what private Indian business is doing. Indian companies are among the largest investors in Afghanistan. Last year a consortium of Indian companies won a $10bn deal to mine iron ore. Other Indian companies are looking at further investments in minerals, health and education. Over the coming decade international aid will gradually start to drop: as that happens the role of the private sector, led by India, will be ever more important in establishing a prosperous and stable Afghanistan.
So Afghanistan matters hugely to both the UK and India, and both of us matter to Afghanistan. That’s why I believe there is scope for the UK and India to work more closely together over the next few years to promote the stable, peaceful, prosperous, democratic Afghanistan we all want to see.
And that is happening. Britain and India are talking to each other more about Afghanistan. Our two Prime Ministers discuss it whenever they meet. They agreed last year to establish a Joint Working Group on peace, security and development in Afghanistan bringing together experts from all parts of our two governments to exchange views on policy and practical cooperation.
And we are working more closely together on the ground in Afghanistan itself. Our present Ambassador in Kabul, Sir Richard Stagg, is my predecessor here. He understands India and its interests as well as he understands Afghanistan. He works closely with his Indian colleague in Kabul, and he is frequently in Delhi to share his analysis of the situation with the Indian government.
Let me sum up. We are in Afghanistan for one overriding reason – to protect our national security. We aim to achieve that by helping the Afghans take control of their own security. But a secure Afghanistan requires more than a good army. It requires strong institutions, democratic processes, an educated population and growing prosperity. The UK will stay engaged to promote all of those. We hope India will stay engaged too – indeed become still more engaged.
Staying engaged is expensive. But failing to stay engaged will be a lot more expensive for all of us. As Leon Trotsky once said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”.