“Afghanistan: Looking to the Future”
South Asia and Middle East Forum
House of Commons
London, October 25th, 2018
The South Asia and Middle East Forum (SAME) hosted a special session entitled, ‘Afghanistan: Looking to the Future,’ on the 25th October 2018, in the Houses of Commons. The discussion began with Mr Khalid Nadeem, the Chairman, highlighting the tragic death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist, a point which was commented on by both Ivan Lewis MP and Jim Shannon MP.
Ivan Lewis MP related the death to the breakdown in international law and norms that is becoming globally prevalent and the increasing number of ‘big players’ on the global stage who are tearing up the international rulebook. Mr Khalid Nadeem noted that it was imperative to maintain close defence and intelligence relations with Saudi Arabia, especially relating to counter terrorism whose help has proved invaluable to the UK. He also stated that it was critical the UK maintain a constant dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because of the aforementioned security issues.
The discussion soon focused on the recent Afghan elections that took place last Saturday, in which one-third of polling stations did not open for security-related reasons, and voter turnout was lower than its previous two elections. The BBC World Service journalist Mrs Sana Safi noted the introduction of biometric registration technology in the election and the fact that it was the first to occur without substantial international intervention.
Ivan Lewis MP conducted the first speech on the UK’s perspective on Afghanistan, bringing to light his concerns regarding the dysfunctional political process and the possible departure of the U.S. from Afghanistan under President Trump. He noted that such an eventuality would reverse a more than decade-long progress whilst further extenuating an on-going cycle of young men being drawn into the Taliban lines as a result of economic exclusion. He also highlighted the importance for a regional solution if long term peace was going to be achieved. Furthermore, he expressed hope regarding the new generation of candidates and youth that were becoming more politically engaged in Afghanistan. However, he did note the deteriorating security case, specifically in the elections which saw multiple attacks on election officials and security services. Ivan Lewis MP was encouraged by the news of increasing voter turnouts in the recent elections in spite of threats against personal security. He also noted the need for Afghanistan’s economy to diversify and find an alternative to the opium crop by offering more economic options to the agriculture industry. He felt that it was the duty of the international community to nudge Afghanistan away from its dependence on opium by encouraging rural development. Ivan Lewis MP finally called for a diplomatic and political settlement to be found with some more moderate elements of the Taliban.
US analyst Johnathan Paris praised the impact of the U.S. in the Afghanistan war highlighting that many Afghans voted in the last elections. He said that this commitment to democratic elections was partly due to the U.S. approach towards Afghanistan. He therefore emphasized the crucial role of current U.S generals in preventing any premature policy moves from the Trump administration towards Afghanistan. He went on to say that President Trump did not seem to be keen on keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another 17 years. Key to Mr Paris’s speech was his emphasis on the conflict of short-term interests – comparable to the prisoner’s dilemma – between the key stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, which are the U.S. and its coalition, the Afghan government, the Taliban and Pakistan. Nevertheless, he ended on a more encouraging note by pointing out that in the long term their interests shared a common goal of peace.
Jim Shannon MP began speaking about the impact of the Afghan conflict on religious toleration in the region following a Q&A session. He criticized the increasing levels of sexual and religious violence in the region, citing several examples of different faiths being marginalized and persecuted within Afghanistan. Mr Shannon expressed deep reservations about Saudi Arabia in terms of its failures in religious and civil liberties, particularly in the case of the Jamal Khashoggi affair, having been concerned for a long time about the Saudi Arabian government.
Afghan writer and businessman, Dr Nasir Shansab, followed up with a speech on the economic prospects of Afghanistan. He highlighted Afghanistan’s poor economic conditions and fragile economy. Dr Shansab saw little hope for the future of Afghanistan’s economy, pointing to its high infant mortality rate – among the highest in the world – and to the average male life expectancy of only 45 years. Further, he pointed to Afghanistan’s reliance on international aid and its illegal opium trade, as well as widespread and systemic corruption.
South Asia analyst Mrs Victoria Schofield spoke about the importance of historical factors in the whole debate and the role of Pakistan in the Afghanistan conflict. Since 1947, the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been uneasy, on a diplomatic and practical level. She called attention to the Pakistani and Afghan tribal history and the tribal zones that went beyond the borders. Mrs Schofield further alluded to the consequences of the Soviet Union invasion in Afghanistan, when many Afghans received refuge in Pakistan. She noted that the reluctance of Pakistan to denounce the Taliban largely rested upon the possibility of their triumph over the Afghan government and its fears that creating an enemy might threaten Pakistan, should a united Taliban State form closer ties with India in future in retaliation, potentially leading to instability on opposite borders of the nation.
Former Lieutenant General, Sir Barney White-Spunner, commented on defence strategy within Afghanistan. He noted the relative success of military intervention in Afghanistan, while putting its troubles down to a disunited economy and hostile tensions between ground actors. Furthermore, he mentioned the troubles facing those supporting intervention, mainly from men such as President Trump who are raising questions about whether intervention has been value for money and why the U.S. should continue to act as the world police. Sir White-Spunner highlighted the importance of recognizing that the Taliban were not a perfectly united front and that the ability for potential peace talks involving the organisation’s representatives, to have an impact on areas such as drug-smuggling in some regions was likely to be low. He suggested that a solution to the conflict may lie in identifying fractions within the Taliban and exploiting its disunity. He argued that since narcotics was the main driver for the Taliban, greater focus should be put on this area. He also disagreed with the practicality of attempts to find an alternative cash-crop with which to replace opium production, citing these as naïve. Sir White-Spunner noted that the current defence strategy in Afghanistan now focused on retraining and transferring military skills to the Afghan police and military. He concluded on the strong suggestion that regional effort had to increase by fostering co-operation between India and Pakistan and to calm tensions among the military in order to stabilise the surrounding areas, specifically Afghanistan.
Rt Hon Lord Alf Dubs drew attention in his speech to the refugee crisis and the impact of the Afghanistan conflict on this crisis. He highlighted the need for a comprehensive solution from member states to accommodate a growing number of young males targeted by the Taliban who were fleeing from Afghanistan, as well as the need to focus on resettling unaccompanied children. Afterwards Lord Dubs discussed the pressure on some Afghan migrants in the UK to return to Afghanistan even while dangers persisted, and how everyone needed to ensure this injustice was prevented going forward. Lord Dubs also spoke about his motion to introduce an amendment to implore the U.K government to grant refuge to 10,000 children. He mentioned an incident when Theresa May as Home Secretary tried to persuade him to back down on the issue on the argument that if more children were allowed in then others would follow. Lord Dubs explained how his amendment eventually found government backing, however, he continues to try and prevent the government scaling back the number of refugees that will be admitted. Lord Dubs also spoke about the need to bring the issue of Afghan refugees from the bottom of the agenda to the top. He concluded by urging constituents and members of the public to pressure their MPs to discuss, debate and campaign about the issue of refugees. Similarly, Lord Dubs also mentioned the importance of encouraging local authorities to do much more about refugees in their local area by finding foster parents or providing adequate housing to prevent marginalization from the community.
The Forum session concluded with Mrs Sana Safi, from the BBC World Service, giving a summary of the election process and the reason for its almost three-year delay. Sana also criticized the points made by previous speakers on the impact of foreign aid on Afghanistan, insisting that blaming Afghanistan for a supposed over-reliance on foreign aid was particularly flawed when Afghans had no say in Western intervention in the region to begin with. Sana went on to say that while military intervention from a Western lens was often seen as negative and severely damaging, in many ways it supported and was often beneficial in Afghanistan, possibly resulting in better future prospects for its people.
The Chairman, Mr Khalid Nadeem, closed with a final comment on the importance of these fora to keep close attention on Afghanistan and ensure that politicians and the public do not become complacent in what has now been a 17-year conflict.
Contributors: Sarmed Hyder, Marketa Jerabek, Luke Oades, Johann Power