by The Rt. Hon. Lord Paddy Ashdown MP

Afghanistan is in our headlines each day, and often the headlines are dire. But how much do we really know about Afghanistan beyond those headlines? Despite more than a decade of the UN and NATO presence in Afghanistan, the western public’s perceptions of the country too often do not match its reality.  

First and foremost, Afghanistan remains an important country, and the costs of failure there by Afghanistan and their NATO, UN and regional partners would be great indeed – not just for Afghanistan but for the broader region. We would be looking at the return in Afghanistan of a lawless space open for the preparation and export of international terror, as well as the very real threat of the collapse of the Pakistani state and the possible loss of control of its nuclear weapons.

Taken together, these factors would greatly deepen what is already the most potent immediate threat to the internal security of western countries. Mission failure would also imply a humiliation and a potentially mortal blow to NATO, especially in Washington's eyes. Nor can we overlook the danger of a widening of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, with potentially baleful geopolitical consequences for all. Clearly, the West cannot afford to simply consign the post-2014 Afghanistan to oblivion.

Nor will it do to dismiss Afghanistan as a “broken 13th century country”, in the words of one politician.  Afghans are a diverse people, justifiably proud of their country’s astonishing cultural heritage, with aspirations and hopes not all that dissimilar to our own.  They are, after all, a people who in 2001 earnestly welcomed us as liberators and have remained committed to the international engagement in their country despite the difficulties and tragedies of the past decade. 

Extraordinary changes have taken place over the last ten years. Like many countries in its region, Afghanistan today has a young population with approximately 70% under 25, who do not want to see a return to the past. To let them down by leaving them once again in the clutches of a brutal Taliban theocracy, and leaving their country a social and economic shambles, and threatened by a deepening civil war would be the saddest outcome of all, and would raise serious questions about what kind of people we are. 

As the 2014 Transition date approaches, there is a short-term imperative to address the transition of mission and mandate in the most responsible way possible. The US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership and the Chicago and Tokyo Conferences held in May and July 2012 looked beyond 2014 and committed the international community to enduring partnerships with security and economic assistance. And, as both military commanders and diplomats have frequently noted, real stability cannot rest only on security but will also require a concerted effort to craft political and diplomatic agreements to give Afghanistan and its people the best chance of stability going forward. Diplomacy and politics require not only reinforcing a political process within Afghanistan that all groups can trust and seeks to address the grievances of those alienated from the political process, but also working to improve the relationship between Afghanistan and its neighbours, most notably Pakistan. 

Beyond the end of NATO’s combat mission in 2014, the drive to ensure enduring stability in Afghanistan and the broader region must place education at the top of the agenda.  Education is the most vital tool to enable the Afghans to lift their country out of backwardness and poverty. Afghans are eager to continue learning about the world outside their borders and to improve their lives by developing badly needed skills in languages, crafts, healthcare, economics and business, amongst others, and remain eager for Western help in these areas. 

But the education process runs both ways. We in the West must learn to think of Afghanistan as far more than the lawless country of insurgents and fundamentalist mullahs too commonly depicted in our media.

To this end, Afghanistan Revealed delivers what its title promises. The Afghan Appeal Fund, which to date has built and staffed schools in five districts and has supported more than 6,000 children, has brought together a distinguished group of scholars, historians and experts with a broad range of knowledge of the country. The book goes behind the media reports of conflict to reveal Afghanistan, from the earliest days to the present.

Afghanistan Revealed is a true tour de force, presenting a wealth of expertise to take the reader beyond the headlines and bring to light the realities of a country in which the West will be involved, in one way or another, for many years to come.



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