Achievements Go Unrecognised in Afghanistan
(From left to right): Lt Mark Barber, LtCdr Craig Whitson -Fay, Lt Nigel Terry, Andrew George MP, Lt Mat Round, WO Jim McColl, Lt Cheryl Gilbertson, CPO Larry O’Hannlon.
An over-excitable Commons Chamber is becalmed each week by the Prime Minister when he announces the name, rank and regiment of another fallen soldier; killed serving our country in Afghanistan. The reference is appropriate, dignified and reverential.??MPs who may have been sharing a joke only moments before become serious and reflective. Each Party Leader makes sure to take time to do the same. Honouring the dead, respecting their professionalism, bravery and their ultimate sacrifice while conveying condolences.??But, it is also convenient. A Party Leader struggling to overcome a hostile or irreverent Chamber clings on to these moments and seeks to prolong them for personal protection and for the opportunity to demonstrate a degree of statesmanship.??
It is, of course, right that we should honour our fallen soldiers. Every tragic loss of life of a British soldier in Helmand is first given a headline announcement of date, location and circumstance. This is followed in the subsequent days and weeks by more high profile media announcements of the soldiers’ personal details, the event of their dignified arrival home, the ceremonial journey through Wootton Bassett and then the funeral. Of the 70,000 soldiers commissioned to serve through Helmand Province, 250 have already lost their lives serving their country there.??
However, that’s about it. There is virtually nothing else reported from that country. Just the stories of soldiers who don’t make it back alive. Those serving in that difficult environment have become understandably frustrated that virtually the only references to Afghanistan appears to be those of the catalogue of UK casualties.??
Last week’s London Conference on Afghanistan has helped to turn attention from the individual tragedies to the progress, the achievements and the challenges faced in peacekeeping and nation building. I have just come back from my second four day excursion to Helmand Province to meet the troops, assess progress and hear what those serving at the front line feel about how it’s all going.??On the day we arrived at Camp Bastion another group of Afghanis (one adult and four children) had been killed by a roadside bomb; two soldiers serving with the Afghan National Army had lost their lives whilst leading operations alongside UK troops and in the Camp Hospital another Taliban fighter injured during capture was receiving good quality medical treatment; to bring him back to full recovery before taking him to (Geneva Convention-compliant) detention.??
The insurgent stranglehold on some areas had been defeated and order restored. Schools had been built and reopened, wells restored, roads constructed, mosques resurrected, power supplies brought into the communities previously without it – all within the last month.??Child and maternal death rates have shown a marked fall with immunisation programmes saving 35,000 lives a year. In 2001 only a million children were in school – all boys. Today there are 6.6 million (35% of whom are girls) and the figure is expected to hit 8 million by 2012/13. Basic health services now reach 85% of the population (up from 9% in 2002) and 233 new health centres were constructed or renovated in 2006/7. More than 4.8 million Afghan refugees have returned to their country; mostly from Pakistan and Iran.??
The population of Helmand is approximately equivalent to that of Devon and Cornwall – around 1.7 million. Troop numbers have been swelling in recent weeks and the first stage of the counter insurgency will commence soon.??General McChrystal has said that the primary objective “is the will of the Afghan people.” The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) he commands will have to tread very carefully. We are not at war with the Afghan people.??One of the biggest frustrations of all is the perpetual but nonetheless casual references to the “war in Afghanistan”. Those serving in that country know that they are engaged in a peace keeping and nation building operation.??
We know that Afghanistan is resilient against invasions. Two major wars (1839-40 and 1878-79) both ended in British withdrawal. A third in 1919 when the British were again repelled; remains a source of national pride and is celebrated on Afghan Independence Day each year (on 19th August). Then of course the Soviet-backed Government of Mohammad Najibullah collapsed and was defeated in 1992, largely by the Islamist Mujahaddin.
The folly of pursuing military action in Iraq diverted both attention and resources to the detriment of the peace keeping and nation building mission in Afghanistan. Whilst the Chilcot Inquiry further exposes the questionable basis on which we went to war in Iraq, the outcome was, as some of us predicted, counterproductive, not least in Afghanistan.??Even so, I met troops rightly proud of their measurable success. Their mission of peace keeping and nation building has been misrepresented as “war”. The tragedy that is the still growing toll of UK troop casualties has understandably concentrated the minds of many. Meanwhile, the determination, progress and success goes largely unreported. Our troops have a right to feel frustrated that their task remains misunderstood and their achievements unrecognised.
Andrew also met and talked to Afghani soldiers preparing to take over the role of keeping the peace.