Tobias Ellwood, Member of Parliament for Bournemouth East, spent five years in the Army with The Royal Green Jackets and served in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia.
Welcome, but please use this flak jacket
On leaving the army Tobias worked as a researcher the former Defence Secretary, the Rt Hon Tom King MP (now Lord King) in Westminster and also in his constituency of Bridgwater.
This is Tobias' diary of a recent visit to Afghanistan...
14-18 October 2006
Sitting guard - from the back of a Chinook
Whilst media attention tends to focus on overstretch of our armed forces, my recent visit to Afghanistan revealed a country developing at two speeds.
In the north the reconstruction is taking place beneath the umbrella of security NATO has created, but this has exposed a phenomenal level of corruption in President Karzai's administration.
In the south, however, the Taleban continue to prevent the acceptable levels of peace for reconstruction and development to make a credible impact on the locals. Insurgency, particularly near the border areas with Pakistan, is rife and the Afghan Government has limited or no influence.
Looking out over the city
Lack of security compounded by the drought has led to a growth in refugee camps and a shortage of food and water. In the northern half relative peace and some reconstruction has allowed communities to develop.
This has exposed staggering levels of corruption both at a national and regional level, alienating President Karzai from the large majority of Afghans who want peace.
I had the opportunity to meet a number of ISAF forces from different participating countries.
The soldiers were enthusiastic to help Afghanistan but many were embarrassed at the conditions placed on them by their respective governments preventing them from engaging in combat.
From the back of a Chinook
Caveats imposed by 34 of the 37 governments on the operations of their respective troops place an extra burden on the USA, Britain and Canada who are the only nations with the ability to effectively fight the Taleban.
There are presently 34,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and to put that into context there are 14,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. Kosovo is smaller than almost any one of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.
ISAF Request for Warrior Fighting Vehicles for British Troops
Tobias talks to French troops in Jalalabad
Following a meeting with General David Frazer (commander of ISAF forces in the southern region that includes British forces in Helmand) I asked why no Warrior Fighting Vehicles had been requested by the British forces following a spate of incidents involving the inadequate 'snatch' land rovers.
To my astonishment the General said repeated requests had been made to the British Forces. This is in contrast to the answers given by the Defence Secretary who has claimed that no such requests have been made.
Heightened security in the southern region has led to neighbouring Canadian forces re-enforcing their troops with main battle tanks (Leopard II) even though their infantry is already using large armoured personnel carriers (Bison).
Afghan Police and Army
Getting ready to get on board a Hercules transporter
Presentations by Ministers of the Afghan Army and police illustrated how much work has to be done before the country is able to sustain itself. The Army is around 20,000 strong and is progressively involved in joint operations with ISAF forces.
However it is still 50,000 short of its target strength and lacks the discipline and training to operate alone.
The police force is a similar size but limited funds mean they are only armed with AK 47s and given 5 litres of diesel a day to drive their 4x4 police cars.
Flying over the country it is easy to see how poppy cultivation is almost out of control. Despite record levels of spending on crop eradication and alternative livelihood programmes, cultivation increased by 59% this year.
Helmand province saw an increase of 162%. There is now agreement amongst most international agencies that the present counter narcotics strategy is failing.
Talking to German troops, who aren't much enjoying Afghanistan
A successful scheme would provide financial support directly to the farmer, raise taxes for the Government, cut off clandestine links with Pakistan, remove terrorism from the trade and therefore cut the funding stream and provide the international community with much needed medicinal products.
The challenge would be tackling the huge number of officials, at local and national levels, who presently profit from the illegal trade and would find themselves out of pocket.
The illegal opium trade is Afghanistan's Achilles heel and Britain has been tasked by the G8 with the responsibility of designing and managing the counter narcotics strategy. Improved international co-ordination would provide a more successful solution and create a prosperous economy, free from the Taleban.
Poor co-ordination between international agencies
Visiting a number of the Provisional Reconstruction Team's ( PRTs) it is clear they do not have the finance or authority to tackle large scale projects.
They therefore lean on agencies such as Difd, USAid and the UN organisations for assistance. However the absence of an authoritative figure with the power to co-ordinate objectives is hampering progress.
The country looks tranquil from the air
A senior co-ordinator who has the authority to manage all interested parties is urgently needed.
Irrigation - Tapping into the underground river systems
Tapping into the extensive underground river systems, fed by the melting snow in the north of the country, is an example of where assistance from a higher authority is needed.
The rivers flow 200 metres under the ground yet there is no major effort to utilise this source. Improving irrigation is the key to allowing Afghanistan to grow the crops needed to sustain its economy and this water could be used for reservoirs and hydro-electric power.
Troops ready for a night operation
Yet there are over 2 million people currently facing the consequences of this year's drought, a recurring phenomenon in Afghanistan.
G8 Summit responsibilities
The Afghanistan Compact signed in London in January 2006 tasked various countries with specific responsibilities to help Afghanistan develop vital infrastructure.
Yet almost a year later in a meeting with the Afghan Attorney General, progress was summarised as failing in four of the five key areas: The UK's counter narcotics strategy is failing, Italy's reform of the judicial system is non existent and police training by the Germans is two years behind schedule.
The newly formed 'Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board' based in Kabul was created with the intention of scrutinising the implementation of the Compact. In reality little can be done if volunteer nations fail to perform.
Rushing to board a Chinook helicopter
NATO forces will not be in the country forever and when they leave, Afghanistan must be able to stand on its own feet. Progress is being made by the international community but, considering the $millions spent here, it remains poor.
Funds are pouring in from around the world but, with no co-ordination on how they are spent or where they should be directed, much is wasted as international agencies from the UN to the EU compete with each other across the country.
If we fail in Afghanistan it will not be due to the size of the forces sent there, but because we did not take advantage of that fragile blanket of security that those forces provide.
I believe we have about two years to get it right.
Join Jon Sopel and guests for the Politics Show on Sunday 26 November 2006 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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