I have just returned from Afghanistan where I saw for myself the challenges we all face as the proud Afghan people, together with the international community, fight the insurgents in the hope of a more secure life. This is a fight we must win, because the safety and security of all nations depends on it.
That is why I agreed to join our Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth on this visit and become the first British Home Secretary to go to the area. The campaign in Afghanistan cannot be divorced from security for the wider world. The future safety of the Afghan people is intrinsically linked to the future safety of us all.
There is no doubt that progress has been made. I met Governor Mangal in Laskar-Gah and heard from him about the work he is taking forward, particularly on policing and counter narcotics, issues which fall squarely within my brief. The trade in narcotics funds the extremists who seek to inflict their minority views on everyone else, exploiting the vulnerable and creating and maintaining instability so they can gain power. But Governor Mangal and the local community are working together to give Afghan farmers the chance to once again make Helmand the bread basket of Afghanistan.
No-one could visit Afghanistan and fail to be impressed by the country’s long and rich history, and the pride and determination of its people. And the visit reinforced my view that the international community must continue its efforts to support the people of Afghanistan build a better future for their country. If we do this, we will prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe haven once again for the terrorists who threaten us all.
That will require an international presence for some time until Afghanistan is able to stand on its own feet. There are no firm deadlines for when British and other forces will withdraw. But withdraw we will when the Afghans themselves can provide the security they want, which is essential for Afghanistan’s future. Gordon Brown recently proposed accelerating efforts to boost the numbers and capacity of the Afghan armed forces and police through greater partnering. My colleague Bob Ainsworth and I discussed how to turn this vision into reality with our Afghan partners during our joint visit.
The role that the Afghans must play themselves in the coming months and years is a key theme of British policy. Afghanistan is not some sort of Western “colony” and never will be. And therefore it is the Afghan government and people who must take the lead in building a better Afghanistan.
The media perhaps inevitably tends to focus on the military aspects of international efforts in Afghanistan. Those efforts are indeed important and they are bearing fruit. Operation Panther’s Claw drove the Taliban from a whole swathe of territory in Helmand. And there’s good news elsewhere: for example, al-Jazeera reported recently on the efforts of the Governor of Bamiyan to re-build her governorate in which the Taliban destroyed the 2 monumental Buddha statues in the dark days of 2001. It is such actions by the Taliban that, along with the targeting of innocent Afghans, including attacks on schools, have convinced the overwhelming majority of Afghans that they do not want the Taliban back in power. Like people everywhere, they want jobs, schools for their children and lives free from pressure and intimidation.
That is why Britain, along with the Afghan security forces and coalition forces from 41 other countries, including the UAE, Jordan and Bosnia-Herzogovina, will continue to confront those in the Taliban who reject the Afghan constitution and support violence. But the Taliban is not a heterogeneous organisation and therefore we support Afghan government efforts to bring into the fold those insurgents who are ready to join a political process and want a peaceful future.
At the same time, we will continue to support the Afghan government with its efforts to re-build their country. There has been real progress: 7 million children are now enrolled in schools compared with only 1 million in 2001 – and a third of those are girls; over 80 percent of Afghanis now have access to basic health services compared with less than 10 percent in 2003. And poppy cultivation fell by more than 20 percent last year.
Of course, there is more to be done. So Afghanistan will need help from its friends, like Britain. We will continue to fund projects that make a real difference on the ground such as our support for councils through which local people have chosen some 47,000 projects to improve water, roads, health and education in their communities. Meanwhile, the UK is supporting two major infrastructure projects in Helmand: the Lashkar Gah- Gereshk road & refurbishment of the Gereshk power plant.
The challenge is to build on progress so far. And we need to be realistic; after 30 years of conflict and instability, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world with high rates of illiteracy, poor infrastructure and weak institutions. That is why Gordon Brown called recently for a conference later this year to bring together the Afghan government and its international allies to ensure that 2010 is a year of real progress in the three critical areas that matter most to Afghan people: security, good governance and development.
So why does Afghanistan matter? It matters because the people of Afghanistan deserve a better future. And, of course, it matters too because we must prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists who have killed innocent civilians from London to Istanbul, Riyadh to Casablanca. Our strategy must be to empower the government and people of Afghanistan and give them the support and commitment they need. If we do that, we can and will succeed.