The United Kingdom will have to continue supporting Afghanistan for many years to come – even after the last British troops leave this year, a Birmingham MP with personal experience of the situation has warned.
Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) was speaking after meeting military commanders and Afghan politicians during a visit to the war-torn country, where British soldiers have been deployed since 2001 as part of a NATO operation.
She is a member of the Commons Defence Committee which has published a hard-hitting report warning that the nation could descend into civil war after British and American forces pull out.
MPs also warned that attempts to stamp out the growth of poppies used in the heroin trade had failed – and poppy cultivation was higher than ever.
The Select Committee visited Afghanistan and its neighbour Pakistan as part of the inquiry, travelling to Kabul, the country’s capital, where MPs met Afghani president Hamid Karzai
They also went to Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan, in Helmand Province, in the south west of the country.
Mrs Stuart has visited the country “five or six times” over the years in her role as a member of the Defence Select Committee, often travelling to Kabul and Helmand but also going to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, the fourth largest city in the country. She said: “We also tried to combine these visits with visits to Pakistan, because you can’t separate the two when it comes to the issues we are looking at.”
Responsibility for Afghanistan’s security is set to be transferred entirely from NATO to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
But Mrs Stuart said: “It was quite clear that if you want to keep all the limited gains you’ve made in terms of governance, it will require continued support of institutions.
“We may be out of there in a combat role but it will be a long, long time before the West will be out of there in terms of support.
“Because if we do, the place will just return to where it was before.
She added: “The next 12 months are going to be absolutely crucial.”
Along with fellow members of the Select Committee, she met Afghanistan’s Deputy Defence Minister, Pakistan’s Interior Minister and senior figures in the UK, Afghan and Pakistani military during the inquiry.
The committee also heard evidence from Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
But they warned: “The insurgency remains a strong and persistent threat to the future security and stability of Afghanistan. Despite the numerical advantage and increasing capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, insurgent attacks have continued to target high profile targets with some success.
“We note the confidence of the Secretary of State for Defence that Afghanistan will not descend into civil war following the withdrawal of the majority of international forces from the country and can only hope that he is correct.”
And the MPs warned: “The counter-narcotics strategy of the UK Government in Afghanistan has failed. As we withdraw from Helmand Province, poppy cultivation is soaring to record levels and there is no sign that the Government of Afghanistan has the will or the means to tackle the problem.
“We are concerned that this will continue to fund organised crime, and undermine the development of democratic government and governance.”
In its 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan had reached a record high in 2013.
Mr Hammond said: “We have a highly effective process for identifying lessons to be learned in near real time, but we will want to look strategically across the campaign as a whole to see what longer-term lessons need to be learned, once the mission is over.”