Afghanistan, Some Reasons to be Cheerful


Rt. Hon. Desmond Swayne, MP for the New Forest West



As our casualties have mounted in Afghanistan, so the media commentaries have become almost universally pessimistic about our ability to salvage anything from the mission in Helmand province. What I find quite startling however, is the very different picture that emerges when you speak to our servicemen and women when they return from Afghanistan. For the last few years I have assisted with mission rehearsal exercises on Salisbury Plain to prepare brigades before their departure to Afghanistan. Many of the directing staff on these exercises have themselves recently returned from Helmand. They have a clear sense of achievement and a wilful purpose to pass on their experience, knowledge and expertise, to those who are about to follow them there. Equally, when a brigade returns they are welcomed at Westminster where they March down Birdcage Walk into Parliament Square, and through Carriage Gates to be entertained on the Commons’ Terrace whilst senior officers give a debrief to MPs on the Committee Corridor.

After the depressing analysis from the media these briefings come as quite a surprise.

There are reasons to be cheerful. First, the Afghan security forces are increasingly taking the lead in operations. They are now in control of two thirds of the districts. Local opinion polling of the population yields an extraordinary 90% confidence rating in them.

Second, security is increasingly taken for granted. In a recent opinion poll in Helmand, as an issue of concern, security was listed only fifth in the pressing priorities of the population. Third, as far as our own troops are concerned, the support and equipment we are now supplying them with has never been better, and the preparation and training never more comprehensive.
The bad news about Afghanistan is that the firefight is becoming much bloodier and the Taliban more emboldened. The debate in Washington, DC this past month focused on whether the US should pursue a different course of action regarding the Afghan insurgency.

Of course there remain very significant concerns: there is no diminution in the number of willing insurgents (even if the attrition of their commanders has reduced their average age to 19, with consequent erosion of their capabilities, and a knock on reduction in support among the population- now down to 7% of the locals). An additional worry is the corruption of officials which undermines confidence in future governance.

There is ‘normality’ in Helmand which is rarely conveyed in our media reporting. Normal courts and prisons operate, municipal councils function (and with female councillors too). There is an ambulance service. There are nearly 80,000 pupils at school. Agricultural output has increased dramatically with wheat production five times greater than poppies. Incomes are up by 20% in the last year. Metalled roads have doubled to 155 miles with another 40 miles under construction, a further 9 bridges were completed by Royal Engineers in the last 6 months. There are now four commercial flights into Lashkar Gah airport per week.

All of this is welcome, but there is nothing irreversible about the progress we have made. The growing confidence of the civilian population can be fragile. The future of Helmand, and Afghanistan remains contested. We have not yet completed our mission to sufficiently train Afghan security forces to stand fully on their own, and so it is vital that we see the mission through so that all the work that we have done endures. Perhaps, the most encouraging thing however, for us here at home, is to witness the extraordinary courage, professionalism and responsibility of our remarkable young men and women. Their response to the challenges thrown at them has been magnificent and is a powerful corrective to any pessimism about our own future as a nation.

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©Jules Stewart 2010