What is happening in Afghanistan?
British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went on the 7 February on a joint visit to Afghanistan. The visit was unannounced in advance. What was on the agenda and why was the visit needed?
Although the war against the Taliban seemed to have been won, the situation on the ground is not nearly so certain. Public attention is more focused on developments or otherwise in Iraq (or even Iran) and Afghanistan has to some extent dropped out of the news. In the southern part of the country, near the Pakistan border, the Taliban have been putting up strong opposition to the international troops. The Taliban are financed by the poppy crops that sustain an international drug trade. The West would rather not see this production and the fact that the Taliban support the trade makes them more popular with local people. Casualties amongst Taliban supports have been very high, several times higher than amongst those of outside forces. Nonetheless the international forces body count is highly unpopular with governments (or the electorate) meant to be supporting the efforts to secure a peaceful Afghanistan. Civilians are also being killed in larger numbers. It is a dangerous country with a dangerous history and NATO governments are not keen to increase their involvement, leaving the UK and US forces with Canadian support to take the brunt of the fighting. There are an estimated 25,000 US troops in the country and the United States hopes to transfer more responsibility to other NATO contingents. NATO forces have been drawn for the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and, in a peace-making role, Canada. The commanders on the ground want more troops. It is a test for NATO as to whether or not these troops will be supplied.
At the meeting with the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, the visitors stressed that the USA and UK were committed to working with the Afghan authorities to defeat the Taliban. Rice was determined with Milliband to push Afghanistan higher up the international agenda and to convince other NATO governments to commit more troops. Karzai’s administration is faced with problems and in Taliban-influenced areas there are parallel administrations. The regime’s security is weak and the administration inadequate. Some international commentators fear that the country is slipping in the ‘failed state’ category. Milliband and Rice were interested in stressing positive achievements. Progress is said to be strong on the educational front for example and Karzai is proud of the achievements in this sector. Relations between the Afghan government and Pakistan are strained.
The relevant international agenda is that of NATO with a significant meeting (a NATO summit) to take place in Romania on the 2-4th April. The British are already have reduced their commitment to Iraq and are unlikely to take supply further troops to Afghanistan. The United States is sending a small number but the bulk of the new demands for troops will be expected from other NATO countries. It remains to be seen who will be willing to cooperate. This is a forgotten war and one that is complicated by the situation in Pakistan. Like Iraq, the war has no end in sight. It never does to over-estimate what military might can achieve. Political problems need political solutions.