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Liam Fox: If Afghanistan will be lost, it will be lost at home

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking. Neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive"

It may sometimes seem clichéd to quote Clausewitz but those words of 1832 have enormous resonance today.

It is against his maxim that we must judge our engagement in Afghanistan and we must begin with a reasonable assessment of where we are at present.

If we are to succeed, we must ensure that we have clear and attainable objectives within a better defined strategy and we must properly resource our efforts.

We must also maintain our political resilience for what is going to be a long and hard struggle in Afghanistan. Partly because of the relatively high number of deaths in 2009 public support for the war in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular. We have to begin by defining what we mean by winning and spell out the consequences of losing.

There are signs of political support for Afghan operations waning in all parts of the Coalition. Here, in the United Kingdom, recent polls suggest that a majority of the public want us to leave Afghanistan.

Weakening resolve at home affects our troops and emboldens our enemies. This is when the Government needs to show leadership and resolve. Explaining why we are in Afghanistan and why we cannot fail.

We are in Afghanistan today out of necessity, not choice.  It was in Afghanistan that the 9/11 attacks were planned and put into motion, and we are in Afghanistan now to ensure that it does not again become a launch-pad for terrorist attacks on the rest of the world.

We must also ensure that we do everything possible to support Pakistan and prevent a further step change in regional instability.

<h2>How we got here</h2>

In the early days after the 9/11 attacks there were two main objectives in Afghanistan:

First, to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven to plan, train and launch terrorist attacks on a global scale.

Secondly, to remove the Taliban regime from power as punishment for not cooperating with the international community and for harbouring terrorism.

Both were accomplished with relative speed, but the subsequent picture has been confused with vague notions of state-building and reconstruction based on U.N. Millennium Goals and a plethora of strategies: an EU strategy, an American strategy, a UK strategy, an Afghan strategy, a NATO strategy, a World Bank strategy and multiple NGO strategies-none of which share a common vision, baseline from which to build, or a clear definition of success.

Consequently, our inability to produce tangible and achievable results eight years on has disappointed public opinion at home and frustrated those in Afghanistan who are finding it difficult to build on the ground.

On top of this, hindsight suggests that the war in Iraq did not help matters in terms of focus and resources in Afghanistan.

During a congressional testimony in December 2007 the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, said that "in Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."

The mission in Afghanistan has received just a fraction of the troops, equipment and resources that have been deployed to Iraq even though Afghanistan has roughly the same population as Iraq and is about one and a half times the size of Iraq.

Today in Afghanistan there are more than 100,000 coalition troops from 41 different nations-but the burden in terms of manpower and risk is not shared equally.

Some countries allow their forces unrestricted roles to carry out the full spectrum of combat missions while others prevent their forces from flying at night or even leaving the base.

At one end of the scale, the United States deploys almost 63,000 troops without any national caveats. At the other extreme there are European countries like Austria which has only three soldiers deployed.

In the south, where the UK's main effort is focused, there are around 8,000 British troops fighting alongside predominantly American, Canadian, Dutch, Danish and Estonian troops. The coalition as a whole has lost 1,142 troops since October 2001. Britain alone has suffered 218 killed in action. For most, 2009 has been the deadliest year of all. 

Public disillusionment with the mission in Afghanistan is exacerbated in the UK because of the Government's failure to define our objectives clearly in national security terms and because of the widespread belief that our forces have not been fully resourced. 

The Government has also failed to explain what failure in Afghanistan would mean in a broader geopolitical context.

The consequences of failure are relatively easy to elucidate.

First, were we to leave Afghanistan prematurely it would be a shot in the arm for every jihadist globally. It would send out the signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believe to be a matter of national security.

The impact of this would be felt beyond the Hindu Kush and the Durand Line-and would extend across the region into the Middle-East and North Africa in one direction, and South East Asia in the other.

And be under no illusions-it would fuel latent fundamentalist sentiment within the UK, and other European countries, imposing even greater burdens on our domestic intelligence and security forces.

Second, it would suggest that NATO, in its first major challenge overseas to combat terrorism did not have what it takes to see a difficult challenge through. This could be deeply damaging, if not catastrophic, for NATO's cohesion and credibility.

The European countries in NATO that are failing to engage in proper burden sharing in Afghanistan might like to reflect on what the collapse of NATO would mean for our wider security.

Thirdly, failure in Afghanistan today would increase threats to the United Kingdom tomorrow. At best, terrorists could come back to use Afghanistan as a base. At worst, Taliban success could force the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities in Afghanistan, many of whom have done well since the fall of the Pashtun dominated Taliban, to take up arms again which, in turn, could encourage a Pashtun Nationalist insurgency or civil war. Either of these scenarios, or anything in between, would leave a nuclear armed Pakistan exposed- further destabilising the region.

<h2>Defining Success</h2>

But if we can describe failure, which is the most common political currency, can we describe success? What does our idea of winning look like?

Success in Afghanistan will be achieved when we have a stable enough Afghanistan, able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allowing the country to resist the establishment of terror bases and the training camps that were there before.

We are not trying to apply, or we should not be trying to apply, a Jeffersonian democratic model to a broken 15th century state. There are noble ideals for development, human rights and democracy. They are complementary to the military mission but they are not the same.

I believe the goal of security is achievable. The current war in Afghanistan in that context is winnable. This is the message we must get across to the British electorate-many of whom think any military action in Afghanistan is doomed from the outset.

From many quarters we are constantly told that the war in Afghanistan is "unwinnable", "impossible", or a "losing battle". To support this claim we are told that Afghanistan is a "graveyard of empires" as if any military, regardless of its intentions, objectives, or capability has some sort of predisposition to strategic and tactical failure once they cross the border into Afghanistan.

The argument that British Forces have never been, or can never be, successful in Afghanistan is historically false. As the Afghan Defence Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, recently said:

"I reject the myth advanced in the media that Afghanistan is a "graveyard of empires" and that the U.S. and NATO effort is destined to fail. Afghans have never seen you as occupiers, even though this has been the major focus of the enemy's propaganda campaign. Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with an alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you come to rebuild."

While our situation today is completely different from the 19th century or even the 1980's, we should at least get our history right.

<h2>The Way Ahead - Making Progress</h2>

There are three areas in the current struggle in Afghanistan I would like to explore in detail today. First, the role of the Afghan population in the war. Secondly, capacity building of the Afghan Security Forces. And finally the need to improve governance across Afghanistan.

None of these are new ideas. All three have been identified as priorities by General McChrystal in his recent assessment and form the basis of future strategy in Afghanistan.

First, protecting the population.

The war in Afghanistan is population-centric so we must take an anthropocentric approach. The centre of gravity for the insurgency is the population. If we don't recognise this we will fail. 

General McChrystal said during his Senate Confirmation hearing earlier this year that: "the measure of effectiveness will not be the number of enemy killed, it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence."  This same theme runs through all 66 pages of the unclassified version of his assessment for President Obama and has been backed by his tactical guidance issued to all ISAF forces in Afghanistan outlining, among other things, the need to reduce civilian casualties.

But in many cases this means protecting the population from the brutality of the Taliban. For example, 80 per cent of civilian deaths in Afghanistan have been caused by the Taliban-a fact not widely reported in the press all too ready to report civilian casualties resulting from coalition action. 

Protecting the population will earn their trust and support. It will divide the Taliban from their centre of gravity, will create space for reconstruction, and allow governance at a local level to flourish.

A secure population will mean a safer environment for British troops to operate. After security gains were made in Iraq as a result of the 2007 Surge the number of IED attacks drastically decreased because locals felt safe enough to turn in IEDs to American and Iraqi Forces.

If we can safeguard the population in Afghanistan from Taliban "night letters" and other forms of retribution then it is likely that IED attacks would decrease there too. Considering that IEDs account for roughly 80 percent of British deaths, protecting the Afghan population will ultimately increase the protection of our troops.

But to protect the population we have to understand the population. We must understand what motives them, how they define security, what concerns they have and how development can most directly impact upon their wellbeing.

As General Petraeus has said on a number of occasions, understanding the Human Terrain in counterinsurgency is even more important than understanding the geographical terrain. 

This is no easy task.

The social network and tribal structures in Afghanistan are highly complex and difficult to understand for many outsiders. In Helmand Province alone there are Tajiks, Baluchi, Shiite Hazaras, and five branches of the Pashtun tribe. All have different competing interests, different centres of power, and in some cases, rivalries which go back centuries. 

We must not underestimate how important the tribal system and ethnic divisions are in Afghanistan and how this dictates their daily lives. For example, in 1972, when the legendary Pashtun activist Khan Abdul Wali, was asked by a journalist to whom he owed his first allegiances he said this:

"I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years and a Pakistani for twenty-five years."

Although the geographical terrain in our Area of Responsibility in Helmand Province is split roughly 50:50 with the United States, 83 percent of the local population lives in the UK sector.  Consequently, the ability to read the Human Terrain is even more important to UK forces in Helmand province than it normally would be.

We need to use the understanding of Human Terrain to map out our reconstruction plan. We need to have one strategy for development in Afghanistan, not multiple ones competing for scarce resources.  Providing security will allow development to occur but it must be meaningful reconstruction-the sort that will have an impact. 

The people of Afghanistan are amongst the poorest in the world. Their needs differ from those in other conflicts where British Forces have operated, such as in Iraq or the Balkans.

In terms of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, in Afghanistan, we are still at the bottom of the pyramid- the physiological needs. These needs also tend to be the most basic and motivating human needs. They are needs that must be met by the Afghan Government and the coalition or they will be provided by the Taliban.

When the Taliban establish their shadow governments in districts across southern Afghanistan they are helping locals meet their basic human needs locally-needs not being met by the coalition or the Afghan government. The Taliban understand this. Why don't we?

Historically, especially in the rural areas of Afghanistan, many of the basic human needs have been provided by the tribe, or at the village, district or provincial level. The Taliban will continue to exploit the needs of the people if we fail to establish the conditions for reconstruction to occur.

Secondly, we need to build Afghan capacity.
A major part in securing the population and creating the security space for reconstruction is developing indigenous security forces that have the ability and confidence to provide security. This is why building Afghan capacity has become one of the most important aspects of the campaign in Afghanistan.

The West will never send enough troops to secure Afghanistan without the help of the Afghans and nor should we even try.   In paraphrasing T.E. Lawrence writing on warfare in Arabia, when dealing in Afghanistan it is better that they do it tolerably than we do it perfectly.

I agree with General McChrystal's goal of increasing the size of the Afghan National Army and getting it to the frontline as soon as possible. It is welcome news that the target of 134,000 Afghan National Army personnel should be met by October 2010 (one year ahead of the original schedule) and the new goal of increasing the ceiling for the ANA to 240,000 troops is also welcome. 

Improving the capabilities of the Afghan National Police is equally important.  Increasing the size of the ANP to 160,000 is a step in the right direction but will only get us so far. As General McChrystal's recent assessment states:

"The ANP suffers from a lack of training, leaders, resources, equipment and mentoring. Effective policing is inhibited by the absence of a working system of justice or dispute resolution."

Until we get a respected and functioning police force that is able to enforce law and justice in a manner consistent with Afghan government on all levels the Taliban shadow governments will fill this void-to the peril of our counterinsurgency objectives.

Policing in any society requires consensus about the penal code and the judicial system. We must find a bottom up solution for building up the Afghan National Police to compliment our top down building of the ANA.

No effort should be spared to train indigenous security forces  -no counterinsurgency has been won without doing this. 

While we do not know what the current Government will do, I told General McChrystal during our recent meeting in Kabul that a Conservative Government would be sympathetic to a request for an increase in the number of British troops to help expedite the training of the Afghan Security Forces. 

Since security is our definition of success, the sooner we get the Afghan Security Forces trained and on the front line the faster we can look to bring our own troops home.

However, a word of caution.  We need to remember that the ANA is a national army-not a provincial army. It is recruited from across Afghanistan and from all ethnic groups. We need to understand that more British troops for training the ANA does not automatically translate into more ANA troops being sent to Helmand to fight alongside British troops. 

Consequently, when, where, and if possible in Helmand, we need seriously to start exploring ways of forming and utilising local auxiliary forces.

Auxiliary forces bring local knowledge and local ownership to local security. Something foreign troops will never be able to do. 

There is already a pilot programme in Wardak Province called the Afghan Public Protection Programme that uses local citizens as static security forces for check points and road blocks and falls under the auspices of the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. Their local knowledge is a combat multiplier. They know when something or someone is out of place because they have lived there their whole life.

If possible, a similar programme should be worth exploring for Helmand. Of course, doing so would have to take into account local customs, tribal structures, views of provincial and national government, and most importantly, legitimacy in the eyes of the locals.  

I'm in no position here today to work out the mechanics here today for what a similar programme could look like in Helmand but I do know that one would be hard pressed to give an example of a counterinsurgency campaign that has been successful without using local auxiliary forces. If we do not mobilise the locals the Taliban will.  If we are serious about winning this may be one area we will have to look into further.

Thirdly, I want to talk about Governance. We need to recognise that governance is as important as security for long term stability. We also need to recognise that Afghan governance is likely to look very different from governance as we know it in the West.

While governance on a national level is important there must also be a strong focus on improving and empowering government at the provincial, district and village levels-at the level that can directly impact on the needs of the population. To believe that we can have a working central government in Afghanistan without first having effective local governments operating at the same time is naïve.

Because of General McChrystal's recent assessment there has been much talk of sending more ground troops to Afghanistan- above and beyond the recent increase in U.S. troops in the south.

But unless we have identified a more comprehensive political solution that improves governance for Afghanistan as part of a new strategy, any increase in troop numbers would merely maintain the status quo, which is arguably an increasingly dysfunctional state apparatus surrounded by a burgeoning insurgency.  This is why it is crucial that the recently held elections in Afghanistan must be seen to be credible and reflect the wishes of the Afghan people.

Deploying more troops without a new strategy will only have a short term and localised effect.  They can win the tactical battle; they can buy politicians time; but ultimately unless something fills the gap they have created, their sacrifices and efforts risk being in vain.

The surge worked in Iraq, because it was fundamentally more than just an increase in troops.  It was part of a bigger solution, designed to suit conditions on the ground and built around a revitalised political process which included the re-engagement of the Sunni minority. To secure this result we will need a sound political plan moving alongside any military plan. A sound political strategy will help undermine the insurgency.

Of course no one believes that a purely military victory in Afghanistan can provide the long term stability we seek. As has been pointed out, part of the political process of improving governance will be to deal with those in the Taliban who are reconcilable, even from among those who may have fought against us in the past. But we have to recognise that some will be irreconcilable-and the only way to deal with them will be in military terms.

And I use the generic term Taliban for simplicity here-recognising the political, cultural and historical complexities involved.

If sections of the Taliban can be brought into the political fold in Afghanistan and allowed to express their grievances through a political process rather than through violence, then why shouldn't we support this?

Are all Taliban the same? Of course not.

Can all Taliban be reconciled? Equally, of course not.

But much of the Taliban our forces are fighting today represent neither the Taliban we were fighting in 2001 nor the Taliban which rolled into Kandahar in 1994.

There are questions we need to ask. Would low to medium level Taliban involvement in the Afghan political process prove to be an existential threat to the government in Kabul?

Even if elements of the Taliban did gain a degree of power or influence in Kabul though legitimate political means as a result of reconciliation, would this mean that  groups like al-Qaeda could operate freely in their country as they did prior to September 11th?

In Dr David Kilcullen's recent book, the Accidental Guerrilla: fighting small wars in midst of the big one, he repeats what an Afghan provincial governor told him on this matter:

"Ninety per cent of the people you call "Taliban" are actually tribals. They're fighting for loyalty or Pashtun honour, and to profit their tribe. They are not extremists but they are terrorised by the other 10 percent: religious fanatics, terrorists, people allied to the Taliban leadership in Quetta. They're afraid that if they try to reconcile, the crazies will kill them. To win them over, first you have to protect their people and prove that the extremists can't hurt them if they come to your side."

As retired Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, who is now working as an adviser to General McChrystal in Afghanistan, said recently:
"We need to take a good look at the people we consider to be our enemies...They have anger and grievances which have not been addressed. The better life they expected has not materialised; these are the people we must talk to, but we must make sure we have something to offer them."

It is important that the reconciliation process is Afghan led.  The current Afghan led reconciliation program, the Afghanistan National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission, better known by its Dari abbreviation: PTS (Program Takhim-e-Solh), has been under resourced and largely neglected since its creation in 2005.

For example, the PTS office in Kandahar, the spiritual base of the Taliban, has a monthly budget of only $600 to cover all operating costs and support to all former fighters who defect. If the international community is serious about winning in Afghanistan then more resources must be found.

It has been said that in a counterinsurgency a "defection is better than a surrender, a surrender is better than a capture, and a capture is better than a kill." There is little doubt that an expanded and robust PTS programme could play an important role in defeating the insurgency. Reconciliation programmes generally, and the PTS programme in Afghanistan specifically, offer military commanders and the Afghan Government an important political tool that could help take the steam out of the insurgency.


In terms of regional players the role of Pakistan is by far the most important in winning in Afghanistan. Thankfully, we have reached a point where we understand that Afghanistan and Pakistan share similar problems that have to be dealt with simultaneously.

The border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan offers a unique challenge in itself. The Durand Line, established in 1893, is recognised by Pakistan and rejected by Afghanistan and was, by design, meant to divide the Pashtun tribe- the world's largest tribal society. 

In Waziristan alone, the Durand Line splits at least 12 Pashtun villages and divides many other villages from their fields. There are stories of the border cutting through the middle of homes. This border is 1600 miles long and if stretched out would be the equivalent straight line distance between London and Moscow.

It is well known that a consequence of such a long and porous border is that the Taliban are using safe havens in the North West Frontier Province and the FATA to launch attacks into Afghanistan. Therefore, we cannot achieve stability and security in Afghanistan until we disrupt the Taliban/al Qaeda network attacking from Pakistan. In a regional context Afghanistan and Pakistan have to be viewed as a single entity-a single issue.

We need to give Pakistan all the support that we possibly can- financially, politically and militarily, because the collapse of the government in Pakistan would make what we want to see in the region utterly impossible. If we think we have problems in a broken state such as Afghanistan, we might want to consider the consequences of a broken Pakistan nuclear-armed and with a vastly greater population.

Pakistan already has deep-rooted political problems and very deep-seated economic problems.  We know the Pakistani Army can fight. Their apparent success in Swat and Buner has proven that-but can they win the peace?  We now are asking Pakistan to do more in the rest of North West Frontier and FATA, which is a tall order.

The Pakistani Armed Forces are trained, resourced, and manned for state-on-state warfare. The bulk of its standing army is facing the south-east as a result of the perceived threat. Because of this focus on state-on-state warfare they lack even the most basic counterinsurgency skills according to experts.

Roughly 65 percent of the Pakistani Military is Punjabi, yet the area along the border where they are operating is predominately Pashtun. For all intents and purposes the Pakistani Military are foreigners in the FATA, which is an area that has never been governed from the outside. At times the presence of the Pakistani Military in the FATA can even exacerbate the situation.

While we must help train and equip the Pakistani Military for counter insurgency operations we must also do all we can to build Pakistani capacity in the round -again especially in the policing sectors and the Frontier Corps in FATA.

Pakistan is a crucial piece of the puzzle and must be supported.

<h2>Conclusion </h2>

Let us make no mistake: we are engaged in a crucial struggle in Afghanistan. It is a national security imperative.

A comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan must include clear, tightly-drawn, realistic objectives that are regularly reviewed; more rapid development of the Afghan security forces; and ensuring that the gains won by British forces on the battlefield are swiftly followed by reconstruction.

Over the past three years the Conservative Party has called on the Government to accept our proposals  for regular, quarterly reports to Parliament on our objectives in Afghanistan, the benchmarks by which progress is measured and the success or otherwise in meeting those objectives and benchmarks.

Above all, the British Government must ensure that our troops are properly equipped for the crucial operations they are involved in, including the earliest possible increase in the number of helicopters, armoured vehicles, and other key battlefield enablers.

It is vital that we maintain the public's understanding and trust if we are to have the will and resilience to see it through. We must set realistic goals and expectations to avoid disappointment at home and abroad.

Immediately after the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1842 the Duke of Wellington said: "It is easy to get into Afghanistan. The problem is getting out again." 

Many media pundits and politicians-especially Liberal Democrats,  talk about "exit strategies", "exit plans", and "withdrawal dates" but none of these terms are found in the lexicon of counterinsurgency.

Of course, as a politician and especially as Shadow Defence Secretary, I would love to be able to tell the electorate, our brave servicemen and women, and their families that we will leave by a predetermined date and that their sacrifices will soon end. But this would be sadly untrue and it would be irresponsible to do this if we are genuine about the national security implications facing us.

It may get worse before it gets better.

As William Hague put it recently: "We are in Afghanistan not to occupy it, but to help make it safe and secure, so that it can be governed by Afghans for Afghans. These efforts require the taking of difficult decisions to turn the war around."

We may need to start asking difficult questions. Are the resources requested by frontline commanders really being provided?  We need to question the reluctance of some of our NATO allies to fully commit in Afghanistan instead of making excuses for them.

It is our job to explain to the public, our military and their families, in a coherent and constant manner, what sort of struggle we face in Afghanistan. We are engaged in a national security mission. We must not try to justify it by other measures.

The day we start justifying our security presence in Afghanistan by the number of girls attending school as Harriet Harman did in the House of Commons before the summer recess; or by the number of people exercising their right to vote, as the media did during the recent elections, is the day we set ourselves up for political failure. These things are very important in themselves and we should aspire to them, but they are neither the reasons we went to Afghanistan nor the reasons why we have to remain.

Success will be defined in terms of security. The reconstruction will follow.

The factors of prosperity, individual freedoms, and free markets-all of which we enjoy in the West-may someday come to Afghanistan. We should do all we can to help this to happen but it will not happen overnight. 

Progress and advancements must be done by the Afghans, on their terms, and on their timeline. In the fast paced lifestyle of the West we frequently use hours, days and weeks as standard measurements of time. In Afghanistan time is traditionally measured in harvests, generations and centuries.

Although the West's commitment in Afghanistan is likely to be measured in years, if not decades, this involvement is not likely to be one that is solely military in nature in the longer term, but one that is about capacity building, reconstruction, and aid.

A comprehensive and inter-government approach will define the long term western involvement in Afghanistan. It will also require inter-governmental agencies within coalition nations to work much more effectively and efficiently.  For those who require linear timelines to measure our involvement in Afghanistan I think General Petraeus said it best when he described Afghanistan as being the longest campaign of "the long war."

Afghanistan must be, and will be, our military's main effort under a future Conservative Government. British Forces cannot be allowed to fail in Afghanistan. We have the best Armed Forces in the world. Our officers and NCOs are world class. The Government must provide all of the tools-soft and hard power, civilian and military- to be successful. If Afghanistan is lost, it will be lost at home by political leaders-not by our gallant men and women on the frontline.

We need to act decisively. Failure is not an option. We need a properly resourced strategy and we need to find the will to see it through. The prize is both still great and still within our grasp-but the window of opportunity is not without limit.

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