Page last updated at 02:06 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

New realism in Afghanistan rhetoric

By George Alagiah
BBC News, Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

When the commander of British forces in Afghanistan tells you that "good enough" is the best that can be achieved here, you have to sit up and listen.

Brigadier Gordon Messenger is every inch a military man, which makes it all the more surprising to hear him settle for something that sounds suspiciously close to second best.

He would deny that characterisation of his words, but accepts there are limits to the Afghanistan project.

The Afghanistan British troops leave behind - and no-one is willing to commit to any timeline other than to repeat the mantra that it will take "many years" - is going to be an imperfect state.

Parts of it may well remain beyond the reach of central government in Kabul, and some of those responsible for the mayhem of the last 30 years could well retain much of their power and influence, perhaps even their militia.

New realism

It is a far cry from the beacon of democracy some had hoped for.

"I don't think it will be recognisable in Western Europe, but Afghanistan will be something which will provide good enough security for the people. I think good enough should be what we look for," the brigadier said.

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"It's not second best, it's realistic.

"There is a new realism in the air. In fact, all that has happened is that the rhetoric is finally catching up with what is actually happening on the ground.

My guess is that ordinary Afghans have known for some time that the liberation of 2001 offered more promise than delivery.

While on a foot patrol with British troops in Lashkar Gah, I spoke to Javed Ameri and his brother Sharaga. Their verdict on life in Afghanistan was gloomy.

Soldier in Afghanistan
Security remains an urgent concern for Afghans

"It is less good now than it was five years ago," I was told. "Travelling on the roads there is no safety."

And it was not just the bandits they were worried about. "At night, even the police ask for money," they said.

While there has been genuine progress in retraining the Afghan National Army, the police force remains far more susceptible to local politics and is notoriously corrupt.

Further down the street, doctors at the busy Ibn Sina clinic told me the Taleban - supposedly vanquished in 2001 - were targeting medics.

"The government cannot give us the protection we need," one said.

"Government forces and the international troops are just in the city but outside it is different."

The Taleban may not rule in Kabul, but in large parts of this vast country - notably in the south - they remain a threat and retain the power to disrupt people's lives.

They have largely given up the full-scale attacks on coalition positions - the assault on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in October was stopped by a pre-emptive operation by Afghan forces and the British - and switched to attacks designed to undermine the government.

Clinics are an obvious choice, especially as health care represents a genuine success story.

Lashkar Gar, Afghanistan
Health care has proved to be one success story in Afghanistan

According to figures published by the UN and the Kabul government, 85% of the population now have access to some form of basic health care - defined as having a clinic within two hours walking distance.

It has to be said that any attempt to calibrate progress in this way is fraught with difficulties.

Nobody actually knows how many people there are in the country. There has not been a census for decades and the one planned by the UN has been postponed to 2010 at the earliest. Security may be an issue.


The ultimate test of the mission in Afghanistan is the extent to which there is tangible change in the quality of life for ordinary Afghans.

That is how the military mission is now defined. No-one talks about a victory over the Taleban.

Indeed, the Taleban were never the only enemy. Afghanistan's fractured and violent history means there are any number of people with the power to take up arms.

It is time to dismantle the insurgency by opening up a dialogue
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles
British ambassador

The old warlords who reduced parts of this country to rubble in the 1990s, the al-Qaeda networks with sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and criminal elements comprise an explosive mix of malcontents confronting Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul.

Given that backdrop, it is not altogether surprising that many more diplomats now accept the possibility of talking to the Taleban - though there are always plenty of caveats and conditions.

"It is time to signal to those prepared to accept the Afghan constitution, lay down their weapons and who are not linked to al-Qaeda that there's a place for them in an Afghan political settlement," says British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles.

"It is time to dismantle the insurgency by opening up a dialogue."

So that is the prospect. Seven years after the defeat of the Taleban was being trumpeted as a victory over evil, they may once again be a part of the political landscape.

That will send shivers down the spines of all those who suffered at their hands.

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