With Afghan troops ousting the Taliban from the strategic southern town of Musa Qala, backed by Nato forces last month, a new western initiative has begun – to bolster the beleaguered regime of President Hamid Karzai.
A lacklustre town in the north of Helmand province, the importance of Musa Qala is more symbolic than strategic, hinging on the fact that British forces took the town from the Taliban in 2006 and handed it over to the tribal elders who pledged to keep it free of Taliban fighters.
It was always a long shot, tribal elders are no match for the tough, resilient, determined forces of the Taliban and, without the back-up they so badly needed, the citizens of Musa Qala saw the town fall back into Taliban hands in early 2007 without a shot being fired.
Now, what remains of the town, after a prolonged and intense bombing campaign, with considerable loss of civilian life, is back under the rule of the government’s forces. But for how long is anyone’s guess. President Karzai may have won the battle but the outcome of the war remains a long way off.
For now, it seems probable the Taliban will withdraw into the comparative safety of the mountains, where they will remain in isolation, until the snows thaw in spring. In the meantime, with the Taliban out of the way, there will likely be quite a bit of chest beating as President Karzai and his western allies claim new successes.
Much of this will be to do with the success of controlling the flow of drugs out of the country, an emotive subject, always guaranteed to find favour with a western audience.
Most of the heroin sold across the world has its early beginnings in Afghanistan and heroin has played a vicious role in robbing the international community of some of its greatest human potential. There are few western towns and cities where the effects cannot easily be seen on the ravaged faces of addicts, huddled in doorways, begging for money, prepared to do almost anything to procure their next fix. It is the worst nightmare of every parent that his or her child will at some stage fall foul of the temptation to indulge in the habit that is cheap, freely available and deadly.
There have been a number of attempts by the international community to persuade Afghan poppy growers to change their crop. If Afghan production dried up, then at least the price of street heroin would be pushed up dramatically, too late perhaps for the addicts, but a deterrent for those not yet on the slippery slope to addiction.
Some of these initiatives were initially successful; with the cultivation of alternative crops heavily subsidised and an end buyer guaranteed, the schemes proved attractive to many Afghan farmers.
The more direct US approach of simply bombing the poppy fields had the effect of reducing production but did little in the way of winning hearts and minds. However, ultimately, both methods failed miserably when western money, manpower or both were channelled elsewhere. The Afghan farmers went back to the tried and true crop of heroin that saw good returns made year on year.
And here lies the crux of the problem between the West and Afghanistan – good intentions and promises from the former that are not followed through.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on a visit to Afghanistan last month, made yet more pledges – increased aid and a programme of reconstruction. Brown argued that only in this way could the West secure Afghani public support for Nato forces and President Karzai, whose brief currently extends just about as far as the city limits of Kabul.
There can be no doubt that Afghanistan badly needs help; it is a shell of a country with no real infrastructure and even less potential as things stand. Its’ people have suffered incredible violence and oppression, from various quarters, with most of the population in 2008, never having known anything but hardship and conflict of one kind or another. The Afghans need security, a decent infrastructure, with roads, hospitals and schools; a leg-up in revitalising their moribund economy and some hope of light at the end of the tunnel, however long that tunnel may be.
What they don’t need are more empty promises and we must hope there is more than that on the table for them in often self-serving Nato capitals this time.