British ambassador: Afghanistan is improving slowly, but it’s improving

British troops lower the Union flag during a ceremony marking the end of operations for U.S. and British combat troops in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Reuters)

To many, stability in Afghanistan might seem like a distant dream. In the past 12 months, there have been reports of forces allied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighting in the north, raising fears among the Afghan government.

Even the Taliban classes ISIS and its affiliates as an enemy - the two sides have been involved in fierce battles.

Meanwhile, the Taliban this year regained areas of Afghanistan previously liberated by Western forces during 15 years of war.

The encirclement of the mountainous area of Kajaki, where a hydroelectric plant is based that could serve the country with much of its power, is preventing the facility from receiving essential maintenance.

The areas caught included the city of Kunduz, which this week was recaptured by Afghan and U.S. Special Forces after fierce fighting.

On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced at the U.N. General Assembly that his country was ready to help promote peace and stability in Afghanistan, but “only if we receive the required cooperation from the Afghan government. Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are in neither country’s interests.”

Amid all this, it might be fair to say that little if anything has improved since 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown by Western forces. Not so, says Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Karen Pierce.

Progress

“I last came to Kabul in 2011,” she told Al Arabiya News. “When I came back as ambassador in May this year, one of the things that immediately struck me was how much more prosperous and purposeful the city of Kabul was.”

She said the food in the shops was “pretty good quality,” and the shelves in stores were “well stocked.”

She added: “There are lots of people on the streets, lots of traffic jams. People are dressed in quite a lot of Western clothing, going about their business. There are more women going about their business. When you go into the businesses and ministries, there are more people doing meaningful work and more women employed.”

Having flown back to the country Wednesday night after attending a business conference in Dubai, she said: “In the air, Kabul looks like a normal city you might find even in Europe and certainly in middle-income countries.”

She said that while slow, the economy was “getting going,” although it was still inhibited by the security situation and the difficulties in developing mines.

If the latter could be exploited, the economy would receive a much-needed boost from minerals that have long been known to exist in the country’s rocky landscape.

“There are lots of opportunities in the service sector,” Pierce said. “UK exports of services are worth around $900 million. It’s mainly security services and insurance, but that’s still quite important. There are law firms getting started.” She said there were also opportunities in Islamic finance, oil, gas and even retail.

Security

However, with a resurgent Taliban that seems to be making the most of the withdrawal of Western forces last year, does Pierce see the Afghan army being able to cope?

“It was always going to be a tough year, Because it was the first year that the Afghan national forces have had to fight without NATO operational troops beside them.

“Until very recently they were doing extremely well. They have real pockets of excellence in their crisis-response units, but even the ordinary troops were fighting pretty bravely compared to other countries. They were doing pretty well against the Taliban.”

She said the difficulty lay with police units, which she said were “always known to be the weakest element in the Afghan security apparatus.”

In July, the Taliban admitted that its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died. This had been suspected for quite some time.

The announcement has led to a leadership struggle within the Taliban. It is this that Pierce suspects might have been a driving force behind its efforts in Musa Qala and Kajaki in the south, and Kunduz in the north.

“The particular significance of Kunduz isn’t that it’s militarily significant or strategically significant, but that it was the first provincial center that they’ve been able to take,” she said.

However, reports that Afghan and NATO forces have recaptured the city might help encourage the Taliban to join the peace process, she added.

“I don’t think that this means the Taliban will clear up their tents and leave, but it may mean that they conclude that there’s no point in waiting any longer on the peace process.” She said there were some reasonable grounds for hope that the process would resume.

In 15 years of conflict in Afghanistan, NATO forces suffered at least 3,500 casualties. Britain lost 462 members of its armed forces.

There are no independently verified statistics for how many civilians were killed, but it is likely to have been at least in the tens of thousands.

Despite a clear lack of stability in parts of the country, Pierce said the situation had improved since 2001.

Afghanistan “is on track to being a normal developing country. That doesn’t mean it’ll be a middle-income country soon, but... it has had 40 years of conflict, it had communism, and it’s got one of the worse corruption records in the world. These things don’t go away overnight.”

She said Afghanistan still needed help implementing basic infrastructure, such as registering birth dates and the creation of a teacher training college. However, as long as Afghanistan’s progress continued, albeit slowly, “I think it’s good.”

There is still an underlying threat from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is affiliated with ISIS.

Driven out of Uzbekistan by President Islam Karimov, the Islamist group regrouped in northern Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported that Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum said: “They are fighting our troops at very close range.”

The article said under Dostum’s leadership, Afghan forces and allied militias were waging an offensive to regain ground from militant groups in the north.

“The Uzbek militants are cruel and well-trained,” lawmaker Fatehullah Qaysari told the WSJ. “What worries us isn’t just the presence of these militants in Faryab, but the challenge they represent for the security of the entire north.”

Pierce, Britain’s second female ambassador to Afghanistan, said she saw a threat in the medium term - three to five years.

However, “ISIS here struggles to get a proper foothold, unlike the Taliban,” because the former “is too extreme. It doesn’t have the links among the tribes. A number of fighters [are] Central Asian extremists - Chechens and Uzbeks.”

That said, “there are undoubtedly some of the more hot-headed or hardline Taliban or middle-ranking commanders who, even if they haven’t gone over to ISIS, seem to be fighting for ISIS in certain areas.”

Pierce said a long-term threat to Afghanistan’s stability existed if its development was more slow than it already is.

“Then ISIS can move into ungoverned spaces, then you start to have a potential problem in a few years’ time. That needs tracking. Afghans are worried about that, and know that it needs tracking.”

Will this involve the redeployment of British or NATO forces into Afghanistan? Pierce says “no”, but support and training of Afghan forces will continue.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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