Diane Abbott: We should listen to our troops – not to David Miliband

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The Independent Online

When I visited the British Army in Helmand province, Afghanistan, we travelled on military transport and stayed at two Army bases. We slept in tents, ate with the soldiers and were meticulously briefed by their commanding officers. But we also got the chance to talk to ordinary soldiers and junior officers. This is perhaps why my impression of our operation in Afghanistan is a little different from that of the Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Like him, I was impressed by the grace and gallantry of our soldiers. As one of their commanding officers put it to me, they are "ordinary people doing extraordinary things". I just wish I did not have the nagging worry that their mission, as currently conceived, may be futile.

We control very little territory in Helmand Province and the drugs trade thrives, feeding general lawlessness and funding the Taliban itself. And even if we could enforce law and order tomorrow, there is no functioning Afghan government to which we could hand over.

Soldiers who had been on two or three tours of duty told me that, as time went on, the general Afghan population was becoming disaffected – rather than being won over – because we had failed to bring peace and security. One young major said we had made a mistake being bogged down in huge bases, that we should be more mobile and take the fight to the Taliban more. But he also argued there should be more emphasis on soldiers learning the language and getting among the general population.

Many soldiers told me it would take 10 to 15 years to sort out. But at a cost of £4.1bn a year for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, who believes that the British taxpayer has the patience?

Only resolving the underlying political issues in the region will do that. And these include not just Israel-Palestine, but Kashmir.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington