Afghanistan: Lessons for the Future

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Jim Murphy will talked about the priorities for coalition forces in Afghanistan to meet the withdrawal date of 2015. He will focus on how to achieve lasting, Afghan-controlled security, but also how to achieve a political settlement and match the military surge with a diplomatic surge. Mr Murphy looked at the lessons learnt from the conflict in Afghanistan and how it should inform future defence and security policy.

Text of speech

Today I want to reflect on where we are in Afghanistan and look at the consequences and lessons from Afghanistan.

We meet at a transformative moment. The uprising in North Africa and the Middle East and the awe-inspiring civilian surge that we have watched in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have fractured orthodoxies and permanently recast assumptions on which policy has been based for many years.

We are living through a period where new questions are posed. For some, we must find immediate answers - how to protect Britons and other foreign nationals abroad; how to act to minimise civilian casualties; how to ensure transition to democracy is internationally supported. For other challenges, it will take much longer to assess the implications on our policy and position in the world - how can Britain best encourage internal democratic reform in authoritarian nations with whom we must necessarily engage?; in what circumstances and what forms should intervention - diplomatic, economic and military - be pursued?; are our current multilateral institutions sufficiently inclusive and flexible to respond to unpredictable crises?

It is with these longer term challenges that I want to talk about today and around which much of Labour's Defence Review will focus.

My starting point is that I believe the UK needs a proactive, strong defence policy to protect our interests and values. In today's world the prosperity, security, liberty and civil liberties of those at home cannot be separated from events beyond our borders. The era of a global recession and the global threat of terrorism prove that to any residual doubters. A belief that you have responsibility beyond your borders is not, as some would have it, ideological, but, as we have seen over the last few days, a necessary response to the world in which we live.

That essential internationalism demands of us a new defence posture. The role of Labour's Defence Review will be to contribute to the discussion on what that approach should be, as well as defining our own future defence policy.

As we begin to undertake that work an important first step is to understand the consequences and learn the lessons from the conflict in Afghanistan. And it is Afghanistan that I want to focus on today.

Afghanistan is a conflict which, alongside Iraq, has had a profound impact on the psyche of the British people and which will shape our reactions to global events.

In Afghanistan 358 members of our Armed Forces have been lost. They will always be loved by their families and we should as a country always remember their sacrifice.

Afghanistan remains, in my view, a vital operation in the interests of national security. But let's be clear - the argument is not for war, it is the case against what is unacceptable in the world.

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave safe haven to Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s which allowed terrorists to plan and carry out attacks around the world. Following the devastating September 11 attacks the Taliban protected the perpetrators and the UN authorised an intervention, which NATO took over in 2003.

Failure to act could have led Al Qaeda and potentially other terrorist groups to entrench their safe havens in the volatile and strategically important Afghan-Pakistan border.

We acted in national self defence to build a sustainable, democratic government in a more secure land in which the extreme politics of the Taliban couldn't return. On those criteria there has been fragile but not irreversible progress.

Almost ten years in, howe ver, it is not enough to explain why we were justified to go to war in the first place. We have to be clear about how we are getting out. Britain fought three wars over 80 years in Afghanistan. This is our fourth, and we do not want a fifth.

We support the Government's policy of conditions-based withdrawal by 2015 and view a sustainable plan for departure as a shared objective. The role of the Opposition in this parliament will be to work wherever possible to help make that a reality, but to also scrutinise closely the progress being made on the ground, helping to ensure our Forces have the correct strategy and necessary capability.

Our aim is not to build Hampshire in Helmand, but it is in part to ensure that Helmand does not come to Hampshire. It is to develop domestic security, infrastructure and local self-governance to a point that coalition withdrawal does not precipitate a collapse but rather a continuation of that progress, making certain that the circumstan ces that led us to go in can never again occur.

But there is a limit to the impact of military might. We cannot spend the next 1,200 days in an increasingly kinetic effort. As the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week makes clear, there is no military solution to a political problem.

Look at international experience. Every conflict is unique, but many have similarities. There are no exact parallels, but when I was in Kabul some Afghan politicians made the comparison with Northern Ireland. There is limited read across, but there are some lessons we can learn - more from the approach of a Tory government 20 years ago rather than the Labour government before it. Labour's Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason said he would "Squeeze the IRA like a tube of toothpaste". Almost two decades later John Major allowed talks with the IRA while the IRA were planning a massive escalation in conflict in what they termed their own Tete Offensive in Armagh. That significant shift in UK government approach reflected the sense of possibility of a changing IRA policy.

Back then the IRA were for years being beaten but not defeated, but look at what succeeded. The IRA were weakened by intelligence spectaculars, infiltration of their Active Service Units, cutting off external support of finance from NORAID and arms from Libya and - crucially - a political path of the 'ballot box and the armalite'. Once accepted, the ballot box and the Sinn Fein search for middle class nationalist votes became as big a limiting factor on the IRA's armalites as the British Army.

But amongst the many differences is that in Afghanistan there is not yet the sense that there exists a realisable political demand that we can negotiate around. The similarity is that we must foster political will by better understanding and engaging the insurgents.

So I want to turn to the drivers of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

To use the term 'The Taliban⍊ in the singular suggests a homogeneity that is not reflective of the reality. There are multiple factions and insurgents are united by sometimes divergent grievances, whether frustrated Pashtun nationalism, family or tribal feuds, poverty, unemployment, lack of education or resentment at chronic corruption. Most are driven more by practical concern as ideological belief.

Given this diversity, we cannot devise a single strategy but rather we need a single overarching objective, which is, alongside the effort against insurgents, an assault on the conditions that give rise to support for them.

There are, I believe, five areas central to achieving this by which we will judge progress and which should command the focus of ally governments and militaries.

First is the legitimacy of the Government. Legitimacy can only be gained once the government abides by the laws it sets and expects of its population. That means an end to corruption, greater respect for democr atic institutions and formal governance at a local level - in a country where democracy has only shallow roots.

Second is fear and the rule of law. If the people of Afghanistan live in fear, the insurgency is winning. To enforce both security and justice we need to build the capacity of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army, which relies on improved force recruitment and retention, focusing on training, but also ensuring forces better mirror the ethnic and regional make-up of the areas in which they operate.

Third is understanding and overcoming grievance. Insurgency depends on a sense of grievance to survive. Grievance has its roots predominantly in social and economic failure, and the Taliban itself fosters grievance to disrupt the very economic and social advancement which would heighten the chance of the population switching its allegiances away from their ideology. To rid Afghanistan of those conditions would be to rid the Taliban of the fue l for its popular narrative. But there are also local, idiosyncratic grievances which must be navigated. Key to overcoming those is self-determination.

Fourth issue is the poppy trade, which accounts for 40-50% of the Taliban's revenues. We must disrupt it by securing the areas in which opium cultivation is highest and supporting legal agriculture, demonstrating to people that success for the Government is the route to economic advancement.

These issues are all undisputed drivers of insurgency, but their reduction or abolition will only come if coupled with a political process that respects tribal diversity and strengthens Parliament as well as regional and provincial governors.

The absence of significant diplomatic progress should be ringing a distant warning bell which until we make greater progress will get louder with every passing month. The fifth key issue, then, is a political process.

Afghanistan doesn't have a Mandela, of that we are sure . At the moment it's not clear that in the insurgency there is an Adams or McGuiness - of the 1990s variety, there are plenty from the early 1970s mould.

As my colleague Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has said: "The military surge must be matched by a political and diplomatic surge as part of an effort to secure an inclusive political settlement within Afghanistan as well as a regional framework respecting Afghanistan's stability and sovereignty".

We are now at the point where there should be a review of the political strategy every part as deep as the Obama led ISAF review of military strategy. The process must be Afghan-led, yes, but at this stage it needs the international community to lead in helping the Afghans arrive at their strategy.

In getting there we need to maintain military efforts alongside the parallel processes of reintegration and reconciliation.

But the internal political track won't succeed in isolation of regio nal political engagement. The Bonn Agreement failed to bind Afghanistan's neighbours into the long-term project of building a new and more peaceful country. However, all the regional powers have a strong interest in realising an Afghanistan that no longer exports drugs, extremism or refugees. We need a UN-led agreement, which recognises the differing interests of countries in the region, in which each agrees to protect Afghanistan's sovereign integrity and support the reconciliation process. Afghanistan, in turn, must not allow its territory to be used against others.

The role of Islamabad here is critical. The Pakistan military has moved against al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban leaders, but we need to see greater action against the Afghan Taliban and a role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan has a legitimate security interest, but should nurture the future democratic leaders of Afghanistan.

It's clear a political agreement inside and out side Afghanistan would help create some of the conditions for lasting peace.

Having looked at the priority issues for the UK Government and coalition partners in Afghanistan, I want to turn to the consequences and lessons of the conflict. Let's be clear, consequences and lessons are different things in the context of Afghanistan.

I worry that the first consequence of Afghanistan is that, combined with the legacy of Iraq, one and a half unpopular wars creates a permanently unpopular concept.

There is rightly a lot of talk about an Arc of Instability ranging from West Africa to Central and Southeast Asia and many states are mentioned. But there is a State missing from that analysis which is also a danger: the State of Ambivalence. Even though they are entirely different conflicts, UK public opinion has been rightly tested by Iraq and Afghanistan, but as events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown we cannot afford to duck out of global events. This is a challenge too for the Labour Party. I want to be clear that in Opposition we will not fall for the temptation to avoid difficult conversation. Opposition is about proving your preparedness to engage with the issues you would have to in Government if it is to be responsible and ultimately electorally credible.

The principal danger of the State of Ambivalence is that in those states where the risk of conflict is highest its drivers would be able to proceed unabated.

During the 1990s the administration of George Bush senior intervened to prevent famine in Somalia and to aid Kurds in northern Iraq; the Clinton administration returned an elected leader to power in Haiti; NATO ended the war in Bosnia and stopped Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of terror in Kosovo; the Blair Government halted a civil war in Sierra Leone; and the United Nations authorized life-saving missions in East Timor and elsewhere. As Madeleine Albright has written, "These actions were not step s toward a world government. They did reflect the view that the international system exists to advance certain core values, including development, justice and respect for human rights."

In the State of Ambivalence we would still believe in these values, we just may not so readily stand up for them. It is vital that we continue to make the case publicly and effectively for our duty to act on the responsibilities which we have beyond our borders.

The second threat of the State of Ambivalence is that marginalisation becomes not just a strategic risk for the UK but a reality. We have unique global leverage through our roles in the EU, the United Nations Security Council, the Commonwealth and the G20. With globalisation diffusing power among many different international actors and the rise of new powers it is vital that we maximise our potential for influence or it could diminish, potentially permanently.

But this is far from the only consequence to confront. Another may be US Westwards Gaze and Fatigue at perceived European inaction. With pressures on US Budgets, historic domestic policy reforms and declining relative US military strength there will likely be less US appetite for large-scale overseas military operations. While post-9/11 Afghanistan was a compulsory war and saw the UN sanction the invasion of a member state for the first time, there may be increasing resistance within the US over its involvement in 'discretionary' conflicts.

The combination of these consequences makes me worry that if Kosovo occurred after our combat role in Afghanistan has ended we may intervene militarily less quickly, less effectively and with more people than ever saying not at all.

Having looked at two of the consequences of Afghanistan, I want to turn to just five of the lessons.

The first painful lesson of the past decade is that when we invade another nation we immediately take ownership of the problems without necessarily being in possession of all the solutions. We own the poverty, the instability, the sectarian tensions as well as the contemporary and established grievances.

Recognising that is why in Afghanistan 'build' phase in the 'clear, hold, build' strategy is so important, but the lesson is that where force is necessary it should not be separated from the peace: the post conflict peace plan must be a core part of the pre conflict battle plan.

Recent events have shown that in future stability will be based as much on the extent to which we support systems which empower people and enable them to participate in the global free flow of ideas and to be part of civil society as it will bilateral government agreements.

For those countries with whom we have a working relationship, or whose failure threatens international security, we must be in the business of building capacity not in a way that leaves Western-created administrations dependent on over seas aid, but by enabling effective national and local governance, frameworks for civil justice, the functioning rule of law and a legitimate civil police. We must continue to support the concept of co-ordinating defence and development and defence should sit as part of wider, joined-up foreign policy. This is not nation building, but creating the conditions that will allow populations to build their own futures.

Another lesson is found in the words of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in the 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannica on guerrilla warfare: "Granted mobility, security...time, and doctrine...victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain". While I don't share Lawrence's conclusions, it is an old insight into the challenge of insurgency and the continuing need to adapt military hardware and planning.

The Government's Defence Review raises serious questions about whether we have the ability to do this. We have seen recently that civilian efforts need to be supported by and co-ordinated with military capability. The country wants to know what the impact of government cuts will be on our defence capabilities in this changing world, in particular whether the decade long carrier strike capability gap, cuts to maritime capability and scaling back plans to increase the helicopter fleet limit our ability to respond to crises.

Reform of the defence budget is of course necessary and that's why my first announcement was a review of defence procurement, but the explosive events of recent weeks demand a reassessment of the assumptions on which defence policy has been based. There are three words missing from the Defence Review: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya. It would be a sign of a confident government to look again at its strategic defence posture, and in doing so they would regain some lost credibility.

Two further les sons concern multilateralism and Europe.

In a world going through this period of convulsion, there are some who say that the future is a return to the 1990s. In that post-Soviet era the sense was that a combination of international agreements overseen by UN institutions would manage the uncertainty. Instead, we had a period of US uni-polarism and a shift towards Coalitions of the Willing.

In the context of Kosovo, 19 NATO nations found their own legal or moral rationale for military action outside of the UN. At the time the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "To those for whom the greatest threat to international order is the use of force in the absence of a Security Council mandate, one might ask - not in the context of Kosovo - but in the context of Rwanda: If in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of states had been prepared to act in defence of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt authorisation, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?"

In the endgame of Afghanistan and post Iraq, the question of where the UK and the EU sit on the spectrum between binding international multilateralism and ad-hoc military and diplomatic coalitions remains just as pressing.

Europe has got to decide if it is serious. European Member States have to be more honest with each other and about their capacity within NATO. There are too many never-to-be-used battle tanks, unusable fast jets and undeployable army conscripts. George Robertson last year called it a "scandal". Amongst all the talk of Coalitions of the Willing, the act of creating a Coalition of the Capable may in the future be a bigger challenge.

I don't believe there will be an EU Army in my great-grandchildren's lives, but there do have to be better prepared, better partnered European Forces. Not so that we can return to Afghanistan but so that we can look after the interests of our own neighbourhood. The UK's military planning has for years been underpinned by the posture that we most likely won't engage in any large-scale future operation outside of a Coalition with the US - the only possible exception being the Falklands - but we have to think about what additional smaller scale coalitions of fellow Europeans could and might look like.

The final lesson I want to mention today is on Defence Diplomacy. This isn't new. The Roman Republic invited the sons of neighbouring kings to be educated in Rome and Napoleon planned to order the entire French army in Egypt to convert to Islam to help establish French rule.

The Taliban and AQ know the importance of defence diplomacy. The Taliban leadership renovated printing presses in the 1990s and media soon became part of their operational fabric.

But just as it is not new, defence diplomacy isn't just for abroad either. It should start at home. War is always controversial and is ofte n unpopular. But I don't want to let the anger about Iraq trump the shame of Rwanda.

That means: making clear the intentions behind military actions as well as countering our enemies' propaganda - for domestic and international audiences; fostering serious debate in the Muslim world, at home with the diaspora and abroad; and breaking down the barriers between the military, political and civilian worlds.

During the Kosovo conflict there were three daily press conferences aimed at the populations in the Balkans and world opinion. By contrast public opinion on Afghanistan has swung dramatically and Governments have experienced serious political damage. Governments need to do a better job of explaining and discussing Afghanistan with their own publics. Here that includes the previous Labour government and today's Tory government. Winning the hearts of Afghans is compulsory, but retaining the consent of the people of Britain is also essential.

The world is changing spectacularly and rapidly. We don't know where current events will end and indeed many will debate how and why they started. The fact is no-one has conclusive answers. I want to make a virtue today, and in future, of not pretending to hold all the solutions, but I have the genuine intention of wanting to pose some of the big questions which we will all have to confront over the next few months. Britain can and should play an important part of shaping world events and trends, with our Armed Forces its heart. I hope that together we can play a part in making that happen.


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