I am grateful to Sir Menzies Campbell for his invitation to speak here and the opportunity it gives me to restate our Government’s commitment to Afghanistan; our central preoccupation in foreign policy alongside Pakistan. But there are so many other countries that demand some of my time and I have already been answering questions to the media on Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iran.
It is a pleasure to address such an international audience, and it is appropriate too. We should never forget in Britain that 48 other countries have joined us in making great sacrifices in support of security in Afghanistan over the last ten years, through NATO and with our other partners.
We all share a common objective in Afghanistan, which is to ensure that the country never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorism.
We also share a common purpose: to build the capacity of the Afghan national security forces and the Afghan government, so that Afghans themselves can be responsible for their own territory and their own future. This is essential for our own security, and for the NATO alliance. A stable Afghanistan means fewer threats to NATO and its allies.
With huge effort from nations represented in this room and we have just been hearing some of the examples of this and also from the Afghans themselves, the country has come a long way since 2001. But formidable challenges remain before we complete our mission and we will need an enduring international commitment to Afghanistan long after combat troops have been withdrawn, and we need the strategic patience to continue to give it support.
Afghanistan today faces many dangers. There is still an insurgency capable of terrorist spectaculars still stalks the land. There is armed opposition to the Afghan Government and to our international presence. We will have to face up to this every remaining day our troops are in theatre in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government will battle with its consequences for many years to come. But we have made progress, and we have a clear strategy.
The purpose of this session is to take stock of progress in Afghanistan, to review the strategy, and to consider the way ahead to 2014 and beyond. And I want to touch briefly on all of these before opening the floor up to your discussion.
First, we have made hard-won progress but it is fragile.
Ten years on, Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been significantly weakened.
We have seen the liberation of Kabul from the Taliban regime and the establishment of government on a democratic basis.
When the Taliban was driven from Kabul there was no functioning government or civil service. Now ministries have been staffed and the current government is taking steps to combat corruption. In 2002 only 9% of Afghans had access to a health facility in their local area, today this proportion has risen to 85%. One in three of the six million children now in school in Afghanistan is a girl. Just last year 50,000 new teachers were trained, over 30% of them women. The 2004 Afghan constitution has enabled Afghans to vote for their government, although elections have been far from perfect. Sixty nine female MPs were elected in 2010. President Karzai says he aspires to be the first democratic leader who oversees democratic transition to his successor, something unthinkable in Afghan’s recent past.
On the military side, too there is cause for some cautious optimism. In the British area of operations there is clear evidence that the ISAF surge has brought about security gains and had a tangible impact on insurgent activity. This summer also saw the commencement of the formal security transition process in three provinces and four urban areas in Afghanistan, amounting to almost a quarter of the country’s population and including, which is significant for us, Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand Province.
The Afghan National Security Forces, which now number over three hundred thousand troops, have been able to respond effectively to insurgent attacks and to pre-empt many attacks. With international support, Afghan special forces successfully and professionally managed the recent large-scale terrorist attacks against the British Council compound and the US embassy in Kabul. The Taliban’s recent change in tactics against single high profile individuals and spectacular attacks using IEDs and suicide bombers reflects their inability to compete on the battlefield.
These are substantial gains but they are not irreversible. But they show the hope for Afghanistan’s future if security can be consolidated.
We must now make sure that Afghanistan is strong enough to protect its own national security and, through that, our own.
And this brings me to the second theme of this discussion - the strategy.
President Karzai has stated his Government’s commitment to assuming lead security responsibility across the country by the end of 2014, three years from now.
We understand and respect the desire of the Afghan government to determine its future and to secure its own country and borders and to govern itself. For Afghans to take control of their own security and civil administration, they require a credible commitment that responsibility will be transferred to them within an agreed timeframe. And President Karzai’s deadline for transition provides this.
Our decision to withdraw combat troops by that time reflects the NATO consensus that this timeline is credible. British troops will not be in a combat role by 2015, nor will they be deployed in the numbers they are now.
Our objective between now and then must be to secure the gains that have been made, to complete transition, and to develop a long-term commitment to Afghanistan from the international community as a whole.
This involves three key areas of work. We are helping the Afghans to create a national security force resilient enough to cope with the challenges that will remain after 2014. We are also aiding them to construct a state that acts in the interests of all its citizens. And we are supporting efforts to create a fair and inclusive political process. And I want to focus most of my remarks on that third objective, where there is perhaps most work of all still to be done.
We have already started the first phase of transition from ISAF security to Afghan security as I mentioned. The second phase of security transition will be announced soon, and will bring half the Afghan population living in areas where Afghan security forces are in the lead. So we are on course to give the Afghan National Security Forces responsibility for Afghan security by the end of 2014.
On development, the Taliban insurgency against the Afghan government will only be defeated when the Afghan people feel fully confident in the capacity of their government to provide justice, services and economic opportunities. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the highest incidences of child mortality and illiteracy and it will need development assistance for many years to come. But by 2014, we can help the Afghan government make further progress towards a state that is sustainable and able to provide basic public services to its citizens.
And on the political front, as I say, we are helping Afghans to develop a political process that harnesses the strong allegiance of all Afghans to their nation to create similar allegiance to their state. It is up to Afghans to determine how to govern themselves, but there is a clear need for more representative central government and power that is sufficiently decentralised to ensure that all voices are heard while maintaining the unity of the state. This needs to include groups who were excluded from the Bonn settlement in 2001, without being at the expense of others groups such as the Northerners or Afghanistan’s female population.
To bring peace to Afghanistan the Taliban insurgency would need to be brought into a political settlement. They face a choice - carry on fighting or accept President Karzai’s offer of an honourable route back into normal life.
A programme is already underway as you know to reintegrate Taliban fighters back into their local societies. Almost ninety percent of them fight within a few miles of their homes. In its first year, the programme aimed to reach out to one thousand insurgents. More than three thousand have been reintegrated, exceeding the early expectations.
The assassination of High Peace Council Chairman Rabbani was a significant blow to the Afghan-led reconciliation efforts. But it cannot be allowed to derail the possibility of a political settlement, or the hard liners will prevent a democratic Afghanistan from prospering. President Karzai has made clear that he is committed to pursuing reconciliation on the basis of his three conditions of renouncing violence, cutting ties with Al Qaeda and agreeing to work within the Afghan constitutional framework. Secretary Clinton has publically acknowledged that the US will also support reconciliation based on these conditions. The international community has created incentives - for example by changing the UN sanctions regime to distinguish between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But the Taliban has to want to negotiate; that of course is an essential ingredient in itself.
A settlement in Afghanistan must also be capable of enhancing stability in Pakistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan need to work together to stem the flow of militants from either side of their border who continue to undermine the sovereignty of both democratic governments. And, in time, both countries will need to cooperate to manage those that are unwilling to reconcile with Kabul or Islamabad and remain intent on killing their citizens and destabilising the region.
Other countries in the region are also vulnerable to instability in Afghanistan and should work together to support the chance of successful transition in Afghanistan and a more secure and peaceful region. The fact that the regional conference in Istanbul this month set out the first framework for political, security, and economic co-operation in the region in the form of the “Istanbul process”, is a positive development.
Turning to the third and final theme and looking to 2014 and beyond, it is clear that security challenges will remain after 2014.
Afghan security forces will be tested, but should be more resilient; the Afghan state will not be fully developed but should be stronger, and the political process will be going on but is on track today to be more inclusive and sensitive to the will of the Afghan people.
There may well be pockets of insurgency, attempts to launch spectacular terrorist attacks, and traffic in narcotics. But by building up the size and capability of Afghan forces, and by continuing to train and support them, we can help Afghans manage these challenges themselves.
In December, I will represent the United Kingdom at the Bonn conference. This will be a critical moment for the international community to reinforce its commitment to Afghanistan and to key development priorities agreed at the Kabul Conference last year. Next May the NATO summit in Chicago will determine how the international community will continue to provide security assistance after 2014, following the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans. The next priority will then be agreeing long term support for economic and social development.
Given the vital importance to our national security, the United Kingdom will be leading the way in helping to support Afghanistan’s security up to 2014 and beyond. In the short term, we will still provide our military support; after 2014 this will be in a non-combat role and will involve mentoring with Afghan troops. And our political commitment to Afghanistan will endure beyond 2014. Our Prime Minister announced on his visit last June that we would provide an officer training academy for the Afghan army. In the longer term, as responsibility for security is returned to Afghans, we will shift the emphasis of our support towards development and the Afghan state.
So while much remains to be done we have the right strategy to help set Afghanistan on the road to securing and governing itself, and the British government is determined to support Afghanistan as it continues what the Afghan Defence Minister aptly describes as its “Journey of Self-Reliance”. And I hope that across NATO we will continue to work together on these vital objectives.