On the 14th February 2010 British Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox made a statement on the "progress of UK objectives in Afghanistan" to the House of Commons. What I have written here only scratches the surface of British involvement in Afghanistan but Dr Fox's speech contained points which can be proved to be inaccurate. Some of what he said was even contradicted by a report on Afghanistan by the Foreign Affairs select comittee published three weeks after Dr Fox's statement.
At the beginning of his speech Fox said British forces "are in Afghanistan to prevent terrorists, including al-Qaeda, from again using Afghanistan to plot and launch terror attacks," he added that "we should be in no doubt about the importance to our national security of the mission." However under the title Assessing the suitability of the UK's mission and goals the select committee report says that "This argument is not without its critics", writer and journalist James Fergusson told the committee that there is "absolutely no evidence that al-Qaeda even want to come back or that the Taliban would have them back if they did. I've had this conversation so many times in Afghanistan and I have not come across one Afghan who gets this justification for our presence there at all. They do not believe it"
Matt Waldman a Fellow at the Kennedy school of Government at Harvard told the committee "If you talk to the Taliban there is no love lost between them and al-Qaeda. They know that ultimately al-Qaeda was responsible for their downfall. Indeed, Mullah Omar [the spiritual leader of the Taliban] in his last public statement [...] said, 'We want to conduct our foreign policy on the basis that we will not harm foreign countries if they do not harm us.' The select committee go on to say that "the al-Qaeda threat emanates from Pakistan rather than Afghanistan" and "In October 2009, US National Security Adviser James Jones was reported as saying that the "maximum estimate" of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan itself was less than 100 and there were no al-Qaeda bases there."(The Guardian reported on the 29th January 2010 that Mullah Omar wanted to end Taliban ties with al-Qaeda, a former Pakistan intelligence officer is quoted as saying that Omar wants peace in Afghanistan and that "The moment he gets control the first target will be the al-Qaida people").
The committee conclude that "the core foreign policy justification for the UK's continued presence in Afghanistan, namely that it is necessary in the interests of UK national security, may have been achieved some time ago, given the apparently limited strength of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan."
Dr Fox continued by saying "There is still a great deal to do, but I believe there is also cause for cautious optimism……there are many places where progressively a sense of normality and security is returning…………The security picture on the ground is improving, in some cases beyond recognition."
It took Bernard Jenkin, a member of Dr fox's own party, to point out that "cautious optimism represents painfully slow progress 10 years after this war started" and his claim that security is improving is in contrast to a United Nations security assessment reported by the Wall Street Journal in December 2010 which was mentioned in the debate by former Labour Foreign Secretary David Milliband.
The WSJ says it has seen two maps one from March 2010 and another from October 2010, the maps show the dangers of traveling and running programs in each of Afghanistan's districts giving each area a rating of very high risk, high risk, medium risk, low risk. "The U.N.'s October map upgraded to "high risk" 16 previously more secure districts………only two previously "high risk" districts, one in Kunduz and one in Herat province, received a safer rating."
The WSJ quotes Kieran Dwyer,the director of communications for the UN in Afghanistan as saying "in the course of 2010, the security situation in many parts of the country has become unstable where it previously had not been so. There is violence happening in more parts of the country, and this is making the delivery of humanitarian services more difficult for the U.N. and other organizations. But we are continuing to deliver." Nic Lee director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office said "The country as a whole is dramatically worse off than a year ago, both in terms of the insurgency's geographical spread and its rate of attacks……….Vast amounts of the country remain insecure for the unarmed civilians, and more and more areas are becoming inaccessible." Not only does this contradict what Liam Fox said, it also goes against what was said by Barak Obama when he spoke to 4,000 US troops at Bagram Airbase during a visit to Afghanistan at the beginning of December 2010 "Today" he said "we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future"
After a response from the opposition Labour Party spokesman (which contained no criticism of the government, probably because it was a Labour government that took Britain into the Afghan war) Liam Fox said he was "extremely grateful not only for the content of the right hon. Gentleman’s response, but for its tone….It is fair to say that we are lucky in this country, because unlike some countries involved in the international coalition, we have a generally unified political position…I am very grateful to the Opposition for that." The debate did not reflect the views of the public; according to War on Want "over 70 per cent of British people now support the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan "immediately" or "soon"" and a December 2010 opinion poll showed 57% of respondents oppose the UK military operation in Afghanistan and only 34% support it.
It was only Labour MP Paul Flynn who spoke out against the British army presence in Afghanistan, before asking about desertions and dismissals from the Afghan police and army he said:
"Still optimism after 10 years! That is a longer period than the first world war and the second world war combined—a period throughout which our British soldiers have been dying in Afghanistan. There are 356 dead—twice the number killed in Iraq and three times the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade, an event of similar futility. The Secretary of State’s optimism is based yet again on his being in denial of the reality."