“We are not in for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.”
- Liam Fox, Britain's new Defence Secretary.
This, in the 21st century, was the thought of Britain’s Conservative
Defense Secretary during his first trip to Afghanistan. I was hoping that his past five years of homework as shadow minister might have helped him see something of the light, but he seems to be still in living in the shadows of a bankrupt and failed early-20th-century conservatism.
I debated Mr. Fox on the BBC in January, on the eve of the Afghanistan London Conference. Back then, he defended the proposition that socio economic development was the ultimate solution to the Afghan conflict. But hearing his views now that he's in cabinet, it makes me wonder if this is how much politicians fake up their arguments.
We shouldn't be surprised that Fox isn't setting out education policies for the "13th-century broken country” that Afghanistan has become. But we should be surprised to hear such a statement from a leading politician of a democratic government.
Has something caused him to change his mind since January? Is he disillusioned? If anyone has caused to be disillusioned, it would be the millions of young girls struggling to go to school every day in Afghanistan, even if acid is thrown to their faces or their schoolyards are poisoned. It would be the thousands of Afghan women fighting for their rights and risking their lives to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
It is they who would be abandoned by the policy Mr. Fox counsels. It is they who would be betrayed, they and the thousands of women rights defenders and activists who carry on with their work despite death threats and terror. It is they who fight extremism and struggle to overturn the social and structural violencefacing women and girls in Afghanistan. It is the thousands of journalists and defenders of freedom of speech who bring news of hope to Afghans and to the world.
The insurgency in Afghanistan today is not merely an outcome of
13th-century backwardness. Even the most backward conservative politicians of the "neorealist" school should understand that the current chaos in Afghanistan is the legacy of the 19th-century Great Game, the 20th-century , and the simplistic paradigms of the 21st-century War on Terror.
There is nothing realistic, "neo" or otherwise, in imagining that Afghanistan’s instability will be remedied by counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism alone. Leaving Afghanistan to its illiteracy and its poverty will cause grievous harm even to the most narrow vision of a suitable British foreign policy. The old-fashioned course Mr. Fox appears to favour, would allow Afghanistan to roll back into the hands of the militants. Afghanistan will again be used as a base of operations against the Western powers.And it will not be only Afghanistan that will fall outside the orbit
of civilization, but the entire region will be threatened, including , with its nuclear arsenal.
The solutions in Afghanistan will not come from improved military equipment, which was such a concern for Mr. Fox during his trip. The solutions in Afghanistan do not lie in merely a solidified military presence, or even a strengthened Afghan security and defense capacity. The ultimate solutions lie only in the social progress, economic development, literacy and education that an improved security situation will allow.
It is even more perplexing that Mr. Fox would cite "a lack of urgency and understanding in this country about the threat posed by Iran,” as though Afghanistan were a separate matter. Is Mr. Fox not aware of the iron grip thatIran is encircling around Afghanistan? Is Mr. Fox not aware that Afghanistan faces a far more immediate threat from Iran than Britain does?
For Mr. Fox to cite Lord Palmerston and then to draw a false distinction between "British interests" and the necessary cause of advancing democracy is to betray a dangerously shallow worldview. It does not bode well for a new British policy in Afghanistan.
Education and economic development cannot be set aside as trifles in the Afghan conflict. A return to Palmerston's "gunboat diplomacy" will not serve British interests, even in the most narrow, "realist" sense that Mr. Fox favours. Only when Afghanistan is truly standing on its own feet will the threat it currently poses be fully contained.
We are no longer fighting the Napoleonic Wars. It will be only when the international community sees Afghanistan well on its way to being a sovereign democracy that the war will be won. To reach that horizon, Mr. Fox's new government would be well advised to focus not only on better guns, but on increasing aid effectiveness and helping Afghans build their own democracy. That is the only way to speed the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.
The war being waged in Afghanistan can only be won with military efficiency augmented with measures to alleviate poverty and illiteracy, and a realistic program to establish a competent, accountable government. This strategy would not only be less costly - it costs hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, just to maintain a single British soldier in Afghanistan - but it would be sustainable and practical. To empower Afghanistan with its own educated population and its own human resources, to help Afghans restore their own self-reliant nation state - that is how to win this war.