The South Asia Channel

The London Afghanistan conference: seize the chance

This week, Foreign Ministers will meet in London to discuss the Afghan government’s strategy to improve security and governance and — just as important — how the international community can better support Afghans. In advance of the conference, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was in town last Thursday to discuss the agenda and objectives with ...

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Foreign Ministers will meet in London to discuss the Afghan government’s strategy to improve security and governance and — just as important — how the international community can better support Afghans.

In advance of the conference, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was in town last Thursday to discuss the agenda and objectives with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and others. He also had the unprecedented privilege of speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Senator John Kerry said, it is vital for the U.K. and U.S. to have that kind of dialogue on an issue where we work so closely.

In his remarks to the Committee, Secretary Miliband elaborated on the basic approach that both the U.S. and U.K. support:

While necessary, military reinforcements alone will not be enough to achieve success. In 2010, the international community needs to fully align military and civilian resources behind a political strategy that engages the Afghan people in defence of their country, divides the insurgency and builds regional cooperation. This strategy needs to be led by the Afghans, but it requires international support. That is the task ahead of us in London next week.

The increase in U.S. and international troops now being deployed in Afghanistan is one crucial and high profile element in how we achieve our ultimate objective. The sacrifices and dedication of the U.S. armed forces are shared by the U.K. — over 10,000 of the U.K.’s Armed Forces are working alongside them, mainly in southern Afghanistan, where some of the very toughest fighting has taken place. And our other NATO allies are providing many thousands more troops, making this a genuinely international effort. We can take huge pride in their efforts.

But as the Foreign Secretary made clear on the Hill, the Taliban need to be out-governed as well as out-gunned. President Karzai’s government and the provincial governors must be seen to deliver economic opportunity for ordinary Afghans, and legal structures that deliver justice, free of corruption. At the same time, we need to continue to build up the Afghan government’s own ability to withstand the security threats it faces. None of this is easy. But it is essential if the insurgency is going to be defeated.

Even in the face of these very tough challenges, there are positive signs coming out of Afghanistan. Nearly three quarters of Afghans told a recent poll that they are optimistic about the prospects for improved security in 2010. The Afghan economy has grown from a very low base by 15% in the past year. And it’s striking that very few Afghans have any desire for the Taliban to return to government. 

Nevertheless we cannot — and do not — take progress for granted; this endeavor is hard. The price we have paid in blood and treasure has been high. Those fighting us are determined, and we have a tough fight ahead of us. But we are in Afghanistan for our own interests, as well as those of our Afghan allies. To allow the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies to have free run of the country would be disastrous for our own national security.

We now have a strategy that can achieve success, and a window of opportunity to turn the tide and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a launching pad for international terrorism. The London conference will set us on our way.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald is the British ambassador to the United States.

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