Speech

Future of Afghanistan: Foreign Secretary's Radio 4 interview

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

In wake of the Kabul Conference, Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke to radio 4 outlining some of the Government's policy on Afghanistan.

John Humphrys, presenter (JH): The representatives of 70 countries are in Kabul for a conference today to talk about the future of Afghanistan. The cynical view, perhaps the realistic one, is that they might as well have stayed at home because the future of Afghanistan, they say, will be decided not by international leaders, however powerful they may be, but by a motley gang of Taliban and tribal leaders and warlords and local militias and corrupt local politicians - in short, the people who have always controlled Afghanistan and always will. Because it’s not a country that fits any recognisable Western pattern but a collection of fiefdoms and the writ of the central government based in Kabul does not run much beyond the city walls, and the most important decision has anyway already been taken: America and Britain and other NATO forces are going to pull their troops out of Afghanistan within the next few years because, the cynical view is, they have finally come to recognise all of that. The truly cynical view is that all these soldiers - more than 320 of our own - who have died have effectively died in vain, so why wait another four or five years for still more to die on a hopeless mission? Our own Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is in Kabul for the conference and I spoke to him just before he went in. Given that we have already decided to pull out, I asked him, why wait - why let more British soldiers die?

William Hague, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (WH): No, we’ve said we won’t be there in five years’ time in… with combat troops in combat. But that’s not remotely saying that we cannot win; our troops are working hard to win, not only making military gains, of course, but we’re also trying to make sure that in terms of putting in the right amount of development aid, of working with the Afghan government to build up their own capacity, that we are indeed winning. That is what we’re engaged on here, that’s what this Kabul conference is looking at today: the Afghans building up their own capacity so that by 2014 their armed forces can cope without us, and that is the objective of the whole international community.

JH: Or possibly it’s just a great deal of wishful thinking imposed on you by the political restraints that you’re under, because if you talk to almost any other organisation or group of people who work in Afghanistan you get exactly the opposite picture, and in that group I include people like NATO, Afghanistan NGO Security Office, the United States Inspector General for Reconstruction, the aid agencies, Hillary Clinton herself, every reporter just about who’s ever set foot in the place, present an entirely different picture from that which you’ve just presented.

WH: No, no, I’m not saying it’s not a difficult picture, by the way, and I don’t think I would disagree with most of the people you’ve just quoted. Of course it’s very difficult here in Afghanistan, and we know that from the huge efforts that our forces and the rest of NATO are having to make. But what I’m say… or the purpose of your question was to say that we’ve conceded that we’re not going to succeed here in Afghanistan and that is certainly not the situation. We can get to the point where the Afghan state and the Afghan armed forces can stand up on their own…

JH: Ah.

WH: …and we… and that is the argument that I’m making - again, that’s what the Kabul conference here is about and…

JH: Indeed.

WH: …much of that is on track. Let me just point out, the target was to get to 134,000 members of the Afghan National Army by this autumn; actually that target has been reached already and so some things are even ahead of the progress that was intended.

JH: Well, that’s precisely what I’m disputing with you, that is that things are getting better, and the reality is that they’re not, isn’t it? Let me just quote to you - and you’ll know it, of course, from the highly respected Afghanistan NGO Security Office - who say that the counter-insurgency strategy is not showing any signs of succeeding, and that in fact things are getting worse rather than better and there is no indication that they will get any better: “We do not support the counter-insurgency perspective that this constitutes things getting better, rather as being consistent with the five-year trend of things just getting worse.” That’s what their report said.

WH: Yet I wouldn’t agree with that in painting such a negative picture. It’s a very mixed picture and I don’t want to be starry-eyed about it in any way but there are many areas where things have improved. There are parts of Helmand now where our troops have been engaged for a long time, Nad-e-Ali where I was a few weeks ago where clearly the security situation on the ground has dramatically improved and you can experience that visiting the area. There are other parts of Afghanistan - I went to Herat in western Afghanistan yesterday - which are much more peaceful, where life is much more normal. I was able to go to the university there and talk to the students who want… who are talking about the future of their country and are more optimistic about the future of their country. So I think it’s very important to balance these things…

JH: Well…

WH: …to balance the negative reports with those sorts of experiences as well. And to remember…

JH: Well, it’s…

WH: …what are we doing in Kabul today? We’re trying to make sure that the Afghan state can look after itself in the future…

JH: Alright. Well let’s…

WH: …and our forces don’t have to be here for the long term.

JH: Alright. Well let’s deal with that. Put aside, if you like, the fact that - and it’s not a matter of being negative, it’s a matter of looking at the facts on the ground, and you may well have been taken to places where things have improved a little bit, of course there will be pockets - but the fact is that June marked a record number of Taliban attacks. They were up 52% on the previous year in the south of the country; the number of civilians killed by both sides of the conflict rose enormously, by 23%, and the police and the army, in the eyes of many, are not improving, they are actually deteriorating, and there is no way in which they will be capable of running the country in the next three years, four years, five years, 20 years.

WH: Well, look, I don’t agree with the point you make there at the end of the question. I think it is possible for them to be able to run the country and that is why we say in five years’ time we will not have our combat troops in action here in Afghanistan. And again, what I’m saying is it’s not that everything is going brilliantly well in every area - clearly that would be an exaggeration the other way - it’s just important…

JH: So what’s your estimation of success then?

WH: It’s… the definition of success is Afghanistan reaching a point where Afghans can look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world.

WH: This is the ninth international conference and what have they achieved? The situation has got worse.

WH: This is… actually this is the first conference where the Afghans have made the plans. It’s their ministries who are setting out what they are going to do; it’s them saying…

JH: How?

WH: …how they are going to tackle corruption. It’s President Karzai taking ownership…

JH: What, the people who’ve been responsible for corruption?

WH: …and that is the importance of today’s conference.

JH: The people who have been responsible for the corruption are now going to tell us how they’re going to solve it?

WH: Well, you do have to have the Afghan government tackle corruption.

JH: A corrupt government.

WH: And have there… has there been a lot of corruption in Afghanistan? Of course there has, it’s one of the… it has been one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And that’s why we emphasise that; the International Development Secretary and I, when we met President Karzai yesterday, emphasised that again. We don’t disburse the development funds that we give to Afghanistan other… except on a reimbursed basis when we’re satisfied that the money has been spent properly and in a non-corrupt way. Again, all of these things are very difficult and I don’t want to in any way give a starry-eyed or over-optimistic impression…

JH: Well, it sounds a wee bit starry-eyed if I may say so.

WH: …but in a… but equally people shouldn’t have an excessively negative impression…

JH: Well, alright, let’s…

WH: …because what our troops achieve is tremendous, what our development aid is achieving is important and what you see today is the Afghan ministers able to stand up and say, “This is what we’re doing, these are our plans to improve the capacity of our own country”…

JH: But the one…

WH: …and that’s an important step forward.

JH: And the one thing you said there that nobody would argue with is that our troops have been doing an extraordinary job and they’ve been incredibly brave, and an awful lot of them, 322 as we speak, have lost their lives in doing it. But the fact is that the Afghan army and the Afghan police are in no shape to take over at this stage and, according to the experts, will not be in another two or three or four or five years’ time. And that isn’t just observers making that claim, that is people who know what they’re talking about. The American Special Inspector General for Afghanistan has said that not only is the system “unreliable and inconsistent” - to use his expression - but things are much worse than the official picture. Now this is according to their official audit: “The military and police assessments have overstated operational capabilities. Even the top-rated units are unable to operate independently. As many as 50% of police units are failing drugs tests.” They cannot even go out there and shoot the bad guys because they’re - this is my own words not theirs - because they’re doped up to the eyeballs. That’s the real picture, isn’t it? Why… I come back to the question I put to you at the beginning of this interview - what, in heaven’s name, is the point of us staying there so that more British soldiers will die defending this?

WH: Well, the point is our own national security and that of the wider world. If we were not here, given that the Afghan forces clearly can’t cope on their own at the moment - and you’re quite right about that - well then there would be a very serious risk that this country would go back to being able to provide terrorist bases, and of course the problem would come back to hit us once again. That is why we are here, in a nutshell, and that’s why we have to give this the time and the support to succeed. But more and more we have to allow the Afghans, and encourage the Afghans, to have ownership themselves of what’s happening in this country and build up their armed forces. And are there huge problems in doing that? Yes. But is it happening, steadily? Yes, that’s also true…

JH: Well…

WH: …there’s now a large Afghan army, it is steadily getting into better shape. It needs to be much bigger and much better yet but that can be done, I believe, in the next four years.

JH: So your argument is basically the same as the Labour government’s argument which is that we are in Afghanistan to make the streets of Britain safer from the terrorists. But actually that falls down, doesn’t it, partly because almost all plots are home-grown - terrorists plots home-grown in this country - and anyway, if we’re worrying about Afghanistan we should worry more perhaps about what Pakistan is doing in that area and its relationship with terrorism. So, in short, it doesn’t much matter what happens in the valleys of Afghanistan.

WH: Yeah, it does matter enormously what happens in the valleys of Afghanistan because we’ve seen what could happen here before. Can terrorist plots emerge from other places in the world? Yes, of course they can, and so Afghanistan is not our only problem. But there is a very serious risk that if we weren’t here, that if things collapsed in Afghanistan, this would once again become one of those places where they can set up their camps, where they can plot against the rest of the world and plot terror against the rest of the world. And that is why our troops are here, in a nutshell. We wish we didn’t have to do that and I can tell you, David Cameron and I and our colleagues have looked at all this as we came into office and if we didn’t think it was necessary to do this then we wouldn’t have them here.

JH: Well, you’ve got huge political constraints.

WH: We’ve said they won’t be here in five years’ time. But we have to try to make a success of this situation and to have an Afghan state that functions with armed forces which can deal with their own security…

JH: You…

WH: …and that is our objective and we must stick to it.

JH: And at that point the line, as I was talking to Mr Hague, went dead. It happens, I’m afraid, when you’re talking to Afghanistan, it’s not easy getting through and then it’s difficult to hold on to the line. So there we are. But there has been a lot of talk this morning, and indeed we’ve heard that there has been a lot of talk in the conference itself, about dates and deadlines, withdrawing and all the rest of it. I was going to ask Mr Hague about that, of course, but couldn’t.

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