Leading article: Our duty to Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan is not Iraq. The military intervention to overthrow the Taliban was sanctioned by the United Nations and supported by almost all the nations of the world, including Muslim ones. There were concerns about the means, which relied heavily on bombing from the air and on Northern Alliance warlords on the ground, but the ends were just. This newspaper does not share, therefore, the common conflation of the situation in Afghanistan with that in Iraq. Even in Iraq, where outside intervention was unjustified, we hold to the "china shop" principle set out by Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State: "You break it, you own it." Even in Iraq, we accept that Britain and the US have an obligation to keep their troops there for as long as the democratic Iraqi government wants them there.

If that is so in Iraq, how much stronger the obligation is in Afghanistan, where the democratic government is so much more soundly based. In that deployment, Tony Blair has been criticised on two diametrically opposed grounds. One, that British forces have no right to be there at all. The other, that he has betrayed his promise to the Afghan people to stand by them because he and the Americans were distracted by the needless war in Iraq. We stand firmly in the second camp. Our criticism of the Nato deployment in Afghanistan is that, as it has not been consistent enough, the Taliban were allowed to regroup. More troops and more engineers should have been deployed five years ago. Instead, US and British attention, troops and resources were drained from Afghanistan by the invasion of Iraq. The fact that, as we report today, Mr Blair has now agreed to reinforce the Helmand deployment is an inevitable consequence of that earlier failure.

The situation is far from ideal in other respects. The problem of growing poppies for heroin has not been solved. And, as James Fergusson argues on the opposite page, the British have a history in Afghanistan that works against our troops on the ground. Indeed, it is possible that - unlike in Iraq - British forces are regarded with more suspicion than those of the US by the Afghan people. An opinion poll in December found that 83 per cent of Afghans had a favourable opinion of the US.

It would be far better if troops from other members of Nato, or other members of the UN, could be deployed to support the reconstruction of the country, especially if they came from Muslim nations. However, no such volunteers are pressing forward to offer their services. The failure of other countries to play their part in underwriting the promise made by the UN that the international community would stay the course is no reason for Britain to hang back as well. So we are obliged to see through our commitment to Afghan security and democracy, and by so doing try to live down our history in the region.

Once again, however, the stain of Iraq cannot completely be prevented from spreading to Afghanistan. Because of the commonly held scepticism about the Prime Minister's Iraq policy, he is not in a strong position to explain and defend to the British people and to the families of service personnel the case for this nation's engagement in Afghanistan. Yet the case is strong. It is in the world's interest that Afghanistan does not again become a base for jihadist terrorism. And it is important that this case should continue to be made.

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