NATO holds bloggers' briefing
As Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy has posted, I was one of eight bloggers taken over to NATO HQ in Brussels yesterday for NATO's first ever briefing day for bloggers.
I haven't posted much about Afghanistan before as I didn't feel I had any knowledge on the issue beyond what was already in the media, and in recent months I had started to think the conflict there was un-winnable, not something I wanted to put in writing as I didn't want to undermine our troops there.
The on the record briefing we had from Canadian Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, ISAF spokesperson, convinced me that I've been unduly pessimistic and so has much of the media. Tremblay is on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan and was back in Brussels just for a few days. "Winning" clearly isn't a done deal but I came away at least believing that a stable Afghanistan that didn't act as a base camp for terrorists threatening the UK was a possible outcome, and our troops' sacrifice need not have been in vain. Things he said that particularly struck me were:
- The centre of the NATO effort is "to protect the Afghans" both from the Taliban (counter-insurgency) and by "removing malign influences at the local level" e.g. grossly corrupt officials, narco-traffickers.
- Counter-insurgency is about separating the Afghan people from the Taliban but this is very tough as they wear no uniform and do not control defined areas.
- The objective is to transition to the Afghan people taking responsibility for their own defence.
- 76% of Afghans live in rural areas and 75% are under 25 years old.
- The NATO deployment is "population-centric"; aimed at protecting centres of population and the transport, water and power infrastructure that they depend on. It extends a lot further than the city centres only image portrayed in the press.
- The idea is to deliver an alternative model of governance and development to the one offered by the Taliban so the Afghan people can decide which of the two paths they want to follow. In the cities people can already see the public services and other benefits of having a central government. In the rural areas, some people live so remotely from Kabul they may not even know there is a government yet. The "security bubble" has yet to reach all communities.
- BBC polling shows 85% of Afghans don't want the Taliban back. Polling by the Asia Foundation shows only 5% support the Taliban, 70% support the presence of Western troops.
- The period from now until 18 months time is crucial for demonstrating success of the strategy so that the domestic political audience in the West back the continuation of the transition mission.
- The Afghan government is functioning better than it was last time Tremblay was there but still has a long way to go. He does not believe a "strong" government is needed, just an "efficient" one, seen to be doing things for the people.
- The Afghan people are very resilient. On the whole they are staying in the country, not leaving. Given they don't want the Taliban back, it will not take much for momentum to set in, which is why the Taliban are desperately trying to break the government and set back development projects.
- Characterisation of Afghanistan as never having had good government is wrong. Until 40 years ago it was a relatively prosperous, stable society.
- Polling has shown the vast majority of Afghans are proud of the new Afghan National Army as a national institution, and even have positive views of the police, despite its well reported failings.
- Success "is achievable" - defined as "the ability ... to build the security forces" so that the Afghans take responsibility progressively for their own sovereignty, district by district, and that governance and development are improved too.
- To create the conditions for this district by district transfer of security ISAF needs to reduce the capacity of the insurgents and train the Afghans to provide their own security.
- Already 1/3 to 1/2 of security operations are Afghan-led with NATO just in a supporting role.
- Key principles of the counter-insurgency operation are limiting civilian casualties, respecting Afghan culture, enabling governance and development at a local level, separating the insurgents from the people, and removal of "malign influences" e.g. narco-traffickers and corrupt officials.
Will Straw has also reported on this here: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2009/12/nato-we-wont-bugger-off/, as has the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/mehdi-hasan/2009/12/nato-afghanistan-taliban.
Thanks to Dave Cole at the Atlantic Council for organising the visit, and to the NATO Public Diplomacy Division for hosting it.