Saturday, 9 May 2009

Our commitment to Afghanistan

"Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, has suggested British troops leave Afghanistan as a way of cutting government spending.

"The Afghan mission was 'wholly unsuccessful', he told the BBC, and unjustifiably costly given the cuts in public spending needed in the future."

The first reaction of many will be that the author of the Lawson boom, which contributed to the economic mess we are now in, ought not to be offering advice to HM Treasury at present.

However, there is no doubt that our forces in Afghanistan, a large proportion of whom are Welsh, are making sacrifices for no visible return.

For a long time, Paddy Ashdown has argued for a co-ordinator, a sort of UN commissioner, the rĂ´le he filled in Bosnia, and one he could well have taken up if (reportedly) president Karzai had not seen such a strong-man as a threat to his own position.

As he said on The Andrew Marr Show last month: "there's no coordination. There's no plan, there's no speaking with a single voice. The British think Afghanistan's Helmand, the Dutch thinks it's Oruzgan, the Canadians think it's Kandahar, the Germans think it's the Panshir Valley, and the Americans think it's bombing from B-52s. Now if you don't have a single plan and a capacity to speak with a single voice, you're not going to get anything done."

My own view is that there has also been a failure on the civil front. Pacification should have been followed up with road and rail construction, support for SMEs and trade. In such a poor country, a little aid goes a long way, and it doesn't necessarily need coordinating. There could be a mix of aid agencies and commercial organisations. Why don't our big supermarket chains look at sourcing goods in Afghanistan, initially at a loss, if necessary?

A big step which the international community could take would be to license Afghan farmers for legitimate production of poppy for medical purposes.

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