Robin Cook: Still right on Afghanistan

The loss of more UK soldiers has brought Afghanistan into the news agenda again, and triggered the intermittent debate on the UK’s presence there. Part of that is the rather confusing criticism about strategic aims of the UK’s intervention. The latter sort of criticisms tend to be based on some form of ignorance about the nature of the problem in Afghanistan (e.g. the Taliban are a national liberation movement with majority support of the people), and what could be termed the “there only has to be one reason for doing something” argument.

Why must there be only one reason for doing something? Is it about democracy? Is it about fighting terrorism? Is it about women? Is it about children going to school? Is it about building the Afghan economy? Is it about supporting the elected government of Afghanistan? Or is it because we are lap dogs of the United States? Well, how about it being about human rights and our security? Surely the British public can hold more than one idea in their heads, even if the audience of Any Questions can’t, and readers of The Sun can’t. As Paul Berman wrote in 2003, “Freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others.”

Politicians have failed to make this argument coherently over the past 8 years. Only under pressure like today do they attempt to frame the nature of the conflict our troops are involved in a meaningful way. Five years ago Robin Cook and Madeleine Albright wrote an article about Afghanistan. It could have been published last week. They outlined the difficulties in Afghanistan, the failure of the international community to deliver what was promised after the initial overthrow of the Taliban, and the way forward.

It would be a disaster if the UK abandoned its commitment to Afghanistan. If our soldiers died, only for us to hand over the Afghan people to their killers, with all that entails for them, then Afghanistan would have been a terrible mistake. Even if we left Afghanistan to a bloody civil war that the Taliban finally lost, it would be too high a price to pay. We can stay. We have a US President willing to put the resources in to ensure success. The Taliban are also under real threat within Pakistan, which was not the case five years ago. Why give up now? Robin Cook and Madeleine Albright argument for staying in Afghanistan until the job is done is as relevant now as it was five years ago.

A stable, democratic and secure Afghanistan is critical to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent the resurgence of extremism in Central Asia and around the world. The U.S. and international troops who have been risking their lives every day on our behalf in Afghanistan deserve help. And the Afghan people deserve at long last a commitment that can be measured in real accomplishments, not just more promises. The challenge is one that the U.S., Britain, NATO and the rest of the international community can and must take on – with renewed vigor, and with the full force of our military, political and economic might.