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Spelman: Lessons from Afghanistan

Speech at the Royal Society of Medicine

One of the most serious decisions a Prime Minister will ever make is whether or not to send our troops to war. The Prime Minister is doing it now - with regard to Iraq - and it is understandable that many people are cautious. Humanitarian aid organisations are warning of the catastrophic impact it might have on the Iraqi people, and the international community is moving with great trepidation.

This same caution was certainly evident when, in September and October 2001, the United States and her allies considered and carried out a military campaign in Afghanistan.

At the time, though there was much more international support for military action than now exists, many people were extremely nervous about the impact of war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was a very poor country. Very few aid agencies had been able to work freely under the Taliban. Afghanistan had the worst refugee problem in the world, due to twenty years of civil war and four years of drought. Prior to the September 11th attacks there were 4 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, and a million internally displaced people.

People predicted that Afghanistan would descend into political and humanitarian melt-down once the conflict started. 1.5 million refugees were expected to go to Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian Republics. 8 million Afghans (quarter of the population) were dependent on food aid - that's more than who are dependent on food aid in Zimbabwe now. 1.6 million Afghans were meant to face starvation by December. The harsh afghan winter was set to leave thousands of Afghans isolated and cut off from humanitarian aid.

These weren't the predictions of anti-war aid organisations. These were the predictions of the British Government, the United Nations, and the United States. The United Nations actually said conflict in Afghanistan would lead to a 'humanitarian crisis of stunning proportions'.

In other words, people knew and expected that war would exacerbate the misery and desperation of the Afghan people - at least in the short term.

And yet, we went ahead with it. It was the largest coalition ever built to support a war. It had the support of virtually every country - apart from Iraq and Libya. It was supported by Pakistan, by China, by Russia. I can assure you that the House of Commons was much more united in support of war in Afghanistan than it is for war in Iraq. Despite predictions of a humanitarian disaster, the world supported a war in Afghanistan.

At first, it is not easy to understand why there was such overwhelming international support for a war in Afghanistan, and such meagre support for a war in Iraq. Of course, the fight against the Taliban occurred under the shadow of September 11th, which focussed people's minds on the threat of terrorism. But in many ways, Iraq poses a much more serious threat to world security than Afghanistan did. Iraq is believed to be developing ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres, and is in possession of chemical and biological weapons. Neither of these really applied to Afghanistan.

So why was there much more support for war with Afghanistan?

I believe one reason why Tony Blair and George Bush were able to build support for the war in Afghanistan were the repeated assurances that the military strategy would be accompanied by a humanitarian strategy.

Take this quote from the Prime Minister, when Parliament retuned to discuss the coalition against terrorism on the second time:

'I believe that the humanitarian coalition to help the people of Afghanistan is as vital as the military action itself'

On the third time Parliament was recalled, the Prime Minister went further:

'We are doing all we can to limit the effect of our action on ordinary Afghans. I repeat: we will not walk away from them once the conflict ends, as has happened in the past. We will stand by them and help them to a better, more stable future under a broad-based Government involving all the different ethnic groupings. That is our commitment to the people of Afghanistan.'

Within weeks of the September 11th attacks, not only was there a military coalition, there was a humanitarian coalition. Lakhdar Brahimi was swiftly appointed as a high-level co-ordinator for the humanitarian effort in and around Afghanistan. The British Government almost immediately found £25 million to help the people of Afghanistan, and this sum was regularly topped up with extra support.

The United States also committed money to Afghanistan, and Laura Bush was involved in high profile campaigning for assistance to help the children of Afghanistan.

The whole international community gave an undertaking not only to help the people of Afghanistan during the conflict, but also to rebuild Afghanistan after the conflict was over.

Parliament obviously returned several times to debate the coalition against terrorism, and the war in Afghanistan. I think many critics of war would have been struck at the high profile that was given to the humanitarian implications of war. We didn't just debate the military strategy, we debated the humanitarian strategy as well. How was the best way to deliver food? Did the food drops - as used by the United States - really work? Could we open humanitarian aid corridors? How could aid agencies and the military work together? Should there have been a pause in the bombing to deliver emergency aid? All these issues were debated and taken seriously as a vital part of the war on terrorism.

Of course people opposed the war. There was a healthy debate. But I am sure there would have been much more opposition to war if there had not been such a strong commitment to the humanitarian strategy.

I think there is a lesson here for the Prime Minister as he contemplates war with Iraq. War in the 21st century can be brutal. We cannot expect the Iraqi regime to crumble as quickly as the Taliban did. The Northern Alliance helped bring down the Taliban, but the Iraqi opposition is weak, demoralised and divided. The Iraqi people are poor and vulnerable. This is the legacy of a brutal war with Iran, the Gulf War, and a decade of sanctions.

The British people do not want to see a long war in Iraq which might lead to widespread suffering among the Iraqi people. Yet the British and American Government seem strangely reluctant to talk about any humanitarian strategy to help the people of Iraq. Compared to Parliamentary debates that followed September 11th, there is little talk of a humanitarian coalition any more. This is disappointing, and I hope it will change.

Why was the international community so keen to act? Why was the humanitarian aspect of the crisis so high up the political agenda?

This was largely because there is a growing realisation that we have a moral duty to act in such situations. Suffering on such a massive scale is considered unacceptable in this day and age, and the war brought it directly to the attention of people who otherwise are less interested in this aspect of the world. It was also because this was a war of values. We were fighting for decency and humanity in the face of evil terrorist attacks. The war on terrorism was widely characterised as a war of good versus evil; it was seen in moral terms. Helping to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people reinforced the sense that this was a 'moral' war.

Most significantly, there was a realisation that the stability and security of the west depended on tackling the misery and poverty of failed states such as Afghanistan. This is the flip-side of globalisation. The tragedy of the twin towers was orchestrated in a failed state from the other side of the world. Problems thousands of miles away came home and hit us hard. All of a sudden, there was a clear logical and plainly obvious reason why we in the West had to tackle the suffering of the world's poor. In this sense, the war in Afghanistan crystallised the importance of international development, and it has remained high up the political agenda. Since September 11th the Government has significantly increased the UK aid budget, and these increases have been welcomed by the Conservative Party. President Bush is set to increase the US aid budget by US$10 billion over the next three years - a phenomenal increase for a country which has sometimes been suspicious of the value of international aid.

So, what actually happened in Afghanistan? What of the UN's prediction that there would be a humanitarian crisis of 'stunning proportions'?

Thankfully, some of the more doom-laded prophesies failed to materialise. This is largely due to the swift demise of the Taliban, and generous support from the international community. Take the example of the refugee exodus to Pakistan and Iran. The United Nations - and our Government - predicted that there would be 1.5 million new refugees descending on poorly equipped and overcrowded camps. In the end, something like 100,000 refugees fled Afghanistan. That is tragic, but it is a fraction of the number that was predicted. One of the chief problems that Afghanistan has faced is that the number of refugees that have returned to Kabul and the cities has exceeded expectations, and the infrastructure of Afghanistan is unable to cope.

The relatively swift downfall of the Taliban meant that aid routes could open, and food could be delivered to isolated areas before the harsh winter fully set in. People did face food shortages - and in some areas there were very serious food shortages - but 1.6 million people did not face starvation, as was predicted at one point.

Many predicted political anarchy after the fall of the Taliban. People said Afghanistan was ungovernable, and 'At least there was political order under the Taliban'. Again, we can be thankful that some of these pessimistic predictions have not materialised. The Afghan government is facing its fair share of problems, but few would have imagined that a successful loya jirga, attended by with war-lords from every different tribe and faction, could take place so soon after the fall of the Taliban. Now Afghanistan is ruled by a broad, multiethnic Government, led by the respected Hamid Karzai, and containing two female ministers.

There has not been anarchy in the areas surrounding Afghanistan either. Iran and Pakistan, which have interfered in the running of Afghanistan for decades, are giving it a much needed degree of independence.

That is not to say it has been plain sailing. Afghanistan has faced, and continues to face serious problems. Many of these problems concern the long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan. At the Tokyo conference, which occurred exactly a year ago, bilateral and multilateral donors pledged a total of £2.9 billion ($4.5 billion) over five years. The UK pledge was for £200 million.

It has been a constant complaint of the interim administration that too much money is being allocated for immediate humanitarian relief, and not enough for Afghanistan's reconstruction. High levels of bureaucracy, and administration costs, have led to allegations that the 'aid industry' is not delivering value for money in Afghanistan. DfID itself recently admitted that 'the progress in terms of visible results has until very recently been frustrating'.

It was not unexpected that there would be problems. As DfID pointed out at the time, 'routine development mechanisms are notoriously slow in responding to rapidly changing, chaotic post conflict situations. A sudden and chaotic influx of a horde of international agencies can overwhelm and confuse intended beneficiaries.' In a recent assessment of the reconstruction process, DfID conceded that 'co-ordination of the donor effort has only been a partial success'

One of the major criticisms of the reconstruction process has been the fact that money intended for reconstruction has been allocated to humanitarian projects. This is, to an extent, understandable. Afghanistan continues to face appalling social indicators. According to DfID, Afghanistan gas some of the world's highest child and maternal mortality rates, lowest literacy rates, and an estimated life expectancy of just 44 years. Only 23 per cent of the population has access to safe water and 12 per cent to adequate sanitation. The World Food Programme estimates that six million people are likely to remain dependent upon food aid over the coming year. The livestock production may have declined by as much as 60 per cent since 1998 leaving large numbers of pastoralists destitute. Despite the return of vast numbers of refugees, there are still two million Afghan refugees in Iran and another 1.5 million or so in Pakistan.

However, it is also not strictly true that there has been no reconstruction. School buildings, factories and Government buildings have been refurbished; roads have been repaired, and a back-to-school campaign has provided basic education facilities for 3 million boys and girls. A number of key initiatives, managed by the World Bank and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) are now underway, including labour intensive public works schemes, road building and repairs of electricity networks. A new currency was recently introduced - no easy task - which is a tribute to the significant progress Afghanistan has made in the last 12 months.

According to UNICEF, almost 3 million children have enrolled in over 6,500 schools since March 2002. 30 per cent of those enrolling were girls - a staggering achievement if you look at Afghanistan's recent history. Whilst access to basic health services remain limited, 8 million children between 6 months and 12 years have been immunised against measles; and tens of thousands of new water points and latrines have been constructed.

The main problem of the reconstruction process seems to be extending it beyond Kabul. Law and order in the country remains weak, and the authority of the Afghan Government is not felt in areas where the warlords still rule. There is a very real need to strengthen the authority of Hamid Karzai. He has already survived two assassination attempts, and is now permanently guarded by American special forces.

Unless there is peace in Afghanistan, then all the progress of the last year will be undone. There are many forces who are willing to destabilise Afghanistan. Observers remain suspicious of Iranian influences in Herat, and Afghanistan's western provinces. Al Qaeda remnants are still hiding in pockets of the country, and are thought to be grouping on the border, and would be glad to be rid of a regime established with UK and US support. The world's attention is now focussed on Iraq, but I hope this doesn't mean we will forget Afghanistan. If the war on terror is to be won, then we cannot let Afghanistan degenerate into a failed state all over again.

It is difficult reconstructing a country which has just experienced 20 years of civil war. Sometimes it seems like people expect too much too quickly. Afghanistan has made remarkable process in just one year. However, at the end of the day, there is a limited amount that we can do. I do not believe you can recreate a nation if that nation does not wish to be rebuilt. The stimulus for a new Afghanistan has to come from the people themselves. Reconstruction is not something you do to Afghanistan, it is something you do with Afghanistan. Afghan history shows that one of the few things that unites Afghanistan is a dislike of uninvited guests that overstay their welcome.

Afghanistan is, as one commentator has said, 'the rawest of the west's inventions'. It is the most extreme example of nation building ever attempted. We will learn many lessons in the process. As we come to tackle failed states these lessons will be crucial.

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