Our intervention in Afghanistan has nothing to do with jingoism

By Dr Kim Howells, a minister of state at the Foreign Office. Response to It takes inane optimism to see victory in Afghanistan (THE GUARDIAN, 24/08/07):

Simon Jenkins raises many important issues about the challenges of building a modern state in Afghanistan (It takes inane optimism to see victory in Afghanistan, August 8). But his central premise that this is a British «post-imperial spasm, a knee-jerk jingoism» is plain wrong.I have visited Afghanistan a number of times and there is no doubting the international community’s common view of the task ahead, nor the fact that the overwhelming majority of Afghan people reject the Taliban and their brutal tactics. Afghanistan has suffered 30 years of despair and conflict. It remains one of the poorest and least developed countries on earth. Britain and its international partners are determined to ensure that the country does not slip back into being run by a regime that terrorises and intimidates its people. We want to see Afghanistan back on its feet as an independent democratic state, responsible for its own actions.

We are in Afghanistan as part of a multinational effort, under a United Nations mandate, at the invitation of the Afghan government and supported by a majority of the Afghan people.

Jenkins is right to say we face major challenges. While the difficulties have not broken the international resolve, it has become progressively harder to find the troops and the financial means to complete a long and arduous job. But we have to stay the course. The British, Canadians and Dutch in the south, and many others around the country, have taken up a military role that initially fell disproportionately to the US.

Jenkins is wrong about the cause of the intervention, but makes a hugely important point about its content. If we look and behave like imperialist interventionists, even if we are not, we will lose. There should be one prevailing strategic objective in all we do: standing up President Karzai’s government as the sole force of sovereign authority and state power in Afghanistan.

Tackling the poppy trade was never going to be simple. The Afghan government’s counter-narcotics strategy is not «stupid and counterproductive». Nor is the policy «entrenched» – it is constantly kept under review with the Afghan government and our international partners. Recent UN figures indicate that in provinces in parts of the north and centre where there are effective institutions, where the rule of law is enforced and alternative livelihoods are available, real progress in reducing or stabilising cultivation has taken place. Last year out of 34 provinces six were poppy-free. This year we expect that to double. There is a long way to go, however, particularly in Helmand. That is why we have announced a new package of initiatives, including an additional £22.5m for the Afghan interdiction forces to help disrupt the operations of traffickers and weaken their links to the insurgency, more support for criminal justice, better eradication and $3.6m from the UK to provide extra incentives to governors to reduce cultivation in their provinces.

Responding to these challenges will not be quick or easy. Progress is likely to take decades. But it has to be done. Success in Afghanistan matters to Britain, to our international partners and, most importantly, to the Afghan people.