It is in our own selfish interest to rebuild a stable society in Afghanistan

A cycle of war and disorder resulted in Afghanistan's previous failure as a state, and resulted in 11 September
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The Independent Online

The gathering of at least 1,500 Afghans that is expected to open today is an event of primary importance. The very fact of the loya jirga is a kind of triumph. That representatives of every tribe, and from every part of the country, should be sitting down peacefully together is a sign of hope that the country can finally re-emerge from a generation-long dark age.

The gathering of at least 1,500 Afghans that is expected to open today is an event of primary importance. The very fact of the loya jirga is a kind of triumph. That representatives of every tribe, and from every part of the country, should be sitting down peacefully together is a sign of hope that the country can finally re-emerge from a generation-long dark age.

Any agreement, however uneasy, between Afghanistan's tribes and factions should be a stepping stone to elections in two years. And yes, it wouldn't have been even a remote possibility without the military effort that freed the country from the Taliban in the aftermath of 11 September. What's more, despite the difficulties over the ex-king's role that have delayed the opening of the assembly, the sense among diplomats is that it will reach some form of agreement.

So it seems especially churlish to sound any kind of warning note. But a positive outcome in Kabul this month carries nearly as many dangers as it does causes for celebration. Of which the greatest is that the governments so far engaged in the country, the ones including Britain that promised never to "walk away" from Afghanistan will be tempted to start, gradually and at first almost imperceptibly, to do just that, once the war against bin Laden and his associates is somehow judged over.

Already, the omens have been, to say the least, mixed. One of the outstanding successes of the post Taliban period has been the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), so far under a British command that this month will pass to Turkey, reducing the British component by some 1,000 troops. It has brought a degree of relative order and stability to the capital that is a credit to the 19 nations represented in it. But Isaf's writ barely runs outside greater Kabul itself. Earlier this year an expansion of the force to the rest of the country was actively considered in both Washington and London. British and State Department officials enthusiastic about the idea argued that much greater security, in which the roots of a true civil society might be better nurtured, could be brought to the rest of the country and its main cities by no more than doubling the present force. But the idea foundered, partly because of anxieties, both in Germany, which had admittedly taken a historic step by contributing to the force at all, and in France, and even more because of outright hostility to such an expansion and the "nation-building" connotations it carried in the Pentagon, where Donald Rumsfeld saw the continuing "war against terror" as the overriding priority.

A glimpse of why it might have been better if the expansionists had prevailed is furnished in a fresh report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that vividly underlines the intimidatory part played by regional warlords in the process for selecting delegates for this week's loya jirga. It makes for sombre reading. The survey carried out in six southern provinces underlines not only the extent to which some of the warlords and their henchmen are themselves representatives, but that local commanders have made free use of threats, beatings, unlawful arrests and imprisonment to "discourage" more independent-minded delegates from going forward. HRW argues persuasively that in many ways Afghanistan is in a state similar to that of the early '90s, in which regional commanders – in several cases exactly the same people now controlling the process – were consolidating their power in the run-up to the brutal carnage of the civil war. One of the worst cases was in Zabul province, where intimidation was carried out Hezb-I-Islam, the fundamentalist grouping owing allegiance to Gulbuddin Hektmatyar, a figure once friendly to Osama bin Laden. Not surprisingly one of its several recommendations is for an urgent expansion of Isaf to curb the licence enjoyed by the warlords outside Kabul and the criminality associated with it.

Given the results so far, it's hard not to wonder whether the 1,500 British troops deployed in the continuing hunt for al-Qa'ida forces in the mountains of south-eastern Afghanistan might not have been better assigned for a peacekeeping role of the sort that has made their fellow-soldiers so popular in Kabul itself. Particularly if you agree with those who were on the losing side in the argument about expanding Isaf, that internal stability, and freedom from intimidation by the warlords, may actually be the key to extinguishing the residual supporters of al-Qa'ida not least because of the improved intelligence that would result if the local population were less afraid.

British officials who argued this back in the winter and early spring found powerful allies in the State Department. Even Tommy Franks, the general commanding US forces, was said to be a convert. But the opposition in the Defence Department was such that Tony Blair did not personally press President Bush for an expansion of Isaf. Indeed, according to at least one US official familiar with the discussions earlier this year, the British were offered the choice between leading an expanded peacekeeping role and joining the combat forces, and opted for the latter.

That's now history. But the Isaf expansion issue, while dormant, is unlikely to go away. So far, it's true, the large-scale civil conflict that some feared without an expansion of Isaf hasn't happened. HRW argues that the fears of the local population have been increased by a perception that the US supports such activities by those warlords it has used to help in the hunt for al-Qai'da remnants, and in some cases to maintain local security. The continued presence of US combat forces may also be helping to prevent that kind of open conflict between rival warlords.

But that will last only for the finite period that they are there. When they withdrawn, the need for an expanded Isaf will be all the more acute. Peackeepers alone cannot guarantee true democracy. The training of internal Afghan security forces is the only long-term solution. But that will take more than two years. And no-one can read the HRW interviews without thinking that anything remotely resembling free elections in two years' time will need a big increase in UN human rights monitors, and, as in the Balkans, an international force to protect them and the local population from intimidation.

The paradox is that, on the one hand, those against an expanded Isaf argue that the country is much more stable without it than anyone dared to hope; but on the other one of the reasons that the pledges of international aid for Afghanistan have been so woefully slow in execution is precisely the fear that the uneasy stability in the country could disintegrate. The reason why Western governments should provide both security and aid is precisely not to replicate the cycle of war and disorder that resulted in Afghanistan's previous failure as a state – and the lethal consequences that inflicted last September. Nourishing stability and democracy isn't just morally right. It's also a matter of enlightened self-interest.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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