Steve Richards: How Afghanistan became another casualty of the disastrous war in Iraq

The war diverted attention, then provoked an insurgency which is now a model in other countries
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The Independent Online

It is fashionable to pay little attention to the former international development secretary, Clare Short. In ministerial circles and beyond she is dismissed for resigning after the war against Iraq rather than before. Subsequently she has criticised Tony Blair and more recently Gordon Brown. Therefore even those two warring camps are for once united in their derision.

Ms Short is being punished excessively for her belated departure from the government, not least by self-interested ministers who were fearful of the misjudgements being made in Downing Street in the build up to the war against Iraq and remained silent. At least Ms Short raised questions with the Prime Minister about the plans for the aftermath of the war and got around to resigning in the end. The rest of them are still there.

I raise the issue of Ms Short's reputation because she is being tragically vindicated in relation to another of Mr Blair's wars, the one that was fought briefly in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 and is in some ways still being fought now.

In September 2002, when Ms Short was still in her cabinet post, I interviewed her on her return from a visit to Afghanistan. She stated that the Taliban was re-grouping on the outskirts of Kabul and in other cities. In her view the security situation was deteriorating dangerously partly because the attention of the US and the UK had turned to Iraq. She warned that the war in Afghanistan was not over.

Ms Short was speaking at the start of the famously frenzied period in which Mr Blair attempted to prove that Saddam posed a growing and imminent threat because he possessed weapons of mass destruction. In her interview with me she was still in the Cabinet and wanted to stay there. Even so, she reminded Mr Blair that after the attack on Afghanistan he promised that the international coalition would not turn away, as it had done in the past. She was worried that it was already doing so because of the pressure to invade Iraq.

One of the many casualties of the war against Iraq is that for different reasons the international coalition did indeed neglect Afghanistan. The coalition that formed almost spontaneously after September 11th, 2001, was shattered soon afterwards as a result of President Bush's decision to move against Iraq. In Britain, attention shifted too. Ms Short's interview with me made the front pages, but only in terms of her implied warnings about a war against Iraq and the political threat she posed to a Prime Minister intent on supporting President Bush. Her substantial comments on the increasingly precarious situation in Afghanistan were not reported widely.

Even so, from September 2002 onwards Ms Short warned that eliminating drug production in Afghanistan was dependent on demobilising the warlords' fighters and extending security across the country. She told Mr Blair that this must be the overwhelming priority of the US and UK troops. The warnings were ignored. In 2004 when she published her book An Honourable Deception?, she attracted further attention for her criticisms of Mr Blair in relation to Iraq. Yet the book also contained more urgent warnings about Afghanistan. She noted that the "current situation in Afghanistan is disappointing and deeply worrying. The warlords remain strong, drug production has increased, the lives of the people have improved little, and the Taliban are regrouping".

In slightly different circumstances it is now the turn of the Foreign Affairs Committee to raise the alarm. Its latest report, published this weekend, states that "there has been a worrying deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, with signs that the tactics that have brought such devastation to Iraq are being replicated there. The Committee recommends that Government set out what steps it is taking to prevent further such deterioration, and that it clarify the role of British personnel to avoid blurring of the UK's counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics objectives in Afghanistan".

The chairman of the committee is the Labour MP Mike Gapes. In the past I have never known him to be other than wholly supportive of Mr Blair's foreign policies. Yet the passage quoted above is devastating in its condemnation of tactics deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and in its concerns about the confused objectives of military operations in Afghanistan. Elsewhere in the report, the committee notes also that the Taliban is learning techniques from the insurgents in Iraq.

The war against Iraq diverted resources and political attention away from Afghanistan and subsequently provoked an insurgency, which is now a model in other countries. The Committees warns also about the increased risks in Britain from the heightened terrorist threat fuelled by what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These concerns come from such an unlikely source that I spoke to Mr Gapes yesterday. He told me that he still supports the decision to invade Iraq. He believes also that the lawlessness in parts of Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan would have made the situation in Afghanistan precarious whatever had happened after the original invasion. But he accepts that the Taliban did not surrender in the autumn of 2001. Instead they "hid away and now they are back". Like Ms Short in 2002 he implies that the war was never won. He admits also that situation in Iraq is bleak. In the end, even the most loyal Blairite MPs cannot ignore the evidence that is placed in front of them during the committee's hearings.

In the Commons yesterday there were worried calls from both sides of the chamber for more troops, better equipment and warnings that Britain would be committed in Afghanistan for the long term. Downing Street also made clear that in Afghanistan "if extra resources are needed, then no doubt extra resources will be found".

The next public spending round in Whitehall is looming. It is being described in some quarters by that old phrase "eye wateringly tight". The former chancellor, Ken Clarke, author of the phrase in the mid-1990s, is one of those that applies it again now. Britain's infrastructure creaks, public spending is tight, and yet the cry goes out for more spending on Britain's over-stretched military commitments. Britain's problem has not been caused so much by its subservience to the US but its attempts to be a mini United States without the resources.

When Harold Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden after a humiliating failure in foreign policy his opponent, the wily Harold Wilson, noted: "You know the man's a genius. He's leading his party away from Suez." Mr Blair's successor faces a bigger challenge. Britain pledged its commitment to Afghanistan in 2001 and cannot turn away now. Yet the ghastly mistakes in Iraq make Afghanistan more dangerous than it was five years ago. The next prime minister, and the one after that, will need to be a bigger genius than Macmillan to sort this mess out.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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