Michael Williams: For this shift to work, international support is vital


A change of tack or window-dressing? The PM's supposed shift in strategy on Afghanistan is problematic for several reasons.

The perception in many Nato countries is that the alliance is waging a full-on military campaign at the expense of all else. This is not true. Nato has several times committed itself to a "comprehensive approach" that brings security through the application of military force, economic assistance, reconstruction and development.

Results have been mixed. This is largely because Nato only provides military force. Economic assistance and reconstruction must be delivered by others, many of whom are simply not pulling their weight in Afghanistan.

For real policy change, Brown needs to push the international community to act. If he talks about what the world can do differently in Afghanistan, he is on the right track. If he talks about what the UK can do, it is largely moot. The British piece of the puzzle is only part of a larger picture.

If the PM is serious about development, he had better be ready to provide funds. He also needs to get the rest of the international community to contribute what they have promised. Afghanistan is the poorest country outside sub-Saharan Africa (174th out of 178 on the UN's index). Adult literacy is 28 per cent and average life expectancy is 46. Despite this, aid to Afghanistan pales in comparison to what has been given to Kosovo (one fiftieth per head of population). To make matters worse, much of it has been wasted using expensive Western contractors and ineffective projects.

Finally, the idea of political reconciliation is important. The Afghan conflict will not be resolved through exclusive use of military force. The Taliban are not a monolith and segments especially those with economic motivations can be pulled away from the insurgency. The PM is correct to advocate such an approach, but the White House will probably stay unconvinced. The US has been opposed to talks and the Isaf commander was critical of General David Richards's attempts at political settlements.

Political integration will take time and will on many occasions fail. To anyone familiar with Northern Ireland, this is not news. But the process cannot even begin if the US refuses to support such a project and pursues an independent counter-terrorism mission.

Afghanistan is better off than it was in 2001. A BBC poll confirms that most Afghans agree and they hold the Taliban and al-Qa'ida responsible for violence, not the US, UK or Isaf. Nonetheless, a failure to root out corruption and give economic opportunity will erode such support in the long run.

Brown's thinking is in the right place, but it is doubtful this UK policy "shift" will effect much change on operations unless he can bring the US, Nato and the rest along with him. His lack of profile on the world stage which he seems to think is a virtue will make this a tough task.

Michael Williams is head of the transatlantic programme at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of From Kosovo to Kandahar: Evolution of an Alliance (Routledge 2008)

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