Page last updated at 18:53 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Unfinished business in Afghanistan

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show

A NATO French Foreign Legion soldier is surrounded by goats at a joined NATO Afghan National Army and police checkpoint
Eight years on and NATO forces remain in Afghanistan

Afghanistan wasn't the controversial war to begin with. That was Iraq.

The invasion of Afghanistan had UN approval and was about removing a corrupt and brutal regime that had few friends anywhere in the world.

The initial operation was so easy that the BBC's John Simpson practically "liberated" Kabul single-handedly.

Iraq, on the other hand, forced protesters onto the streets in their millions across the globe. It put "old Europe" on a collision course with the US and its UK ally.

After initial success, it very quickly became clear that the war was not won.

Eight years later

Yet, eight years later coalition forces are leaving Iraq (albeit with mission not-quite-accomplished) while troop numbers are increasing in Afghanistan. And the mission there becomes more controversial by the day.

When human blood is spilled on the orders of democratically elected governments, people ask why, and they expect a good answer.

The Prime Minister made an attempt to offer one, or several, in a major speech at the Royal Defence College this week.

The primary justification is tackling the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda. He said it was the responsibility of government to protect its people and that required tackling Al Qaeda in the region.

"We cannot, must not and will not walk away," he said.

Despite the killing this week of five British soldiers by an Afghan policeman they were training, Mr Brown said the policy of working with the local police and army would continue.

Process mired in controversy

"We will not give up this strategy of mentoring, because it is what distinguishes a liberating army from an army of occupation," he said.

And in the face of a collapsed Afghan election process mired in controversy and corruption allegations, he warned President Hamid Karzai that continued international support depended upon his actions too.

So, is the objective in Afghanistan purely counter-terrorism or is it nation building too? It seems to be a bit of both. But how do you build a nation with a regime you admit to be corrupt?

Questions being pondered

And how can you work with local police to fight the Taliban whenever you don't know who you can trust?

These are questions being pondered not just in London, but in Washington too where the Obama Administration is still agonising over its strategic review. The British government will follow the American lead.

Meanwhile this uncertainty surrounding policy and strategy - not to mention the controversy around equipment - is causing extra stress for families of servicemen abroad.

On Sunday's Politics Show Yvette Shapiro has an exclusive interview with Michael Stoker, injured on duty in Afghanistan and now recuperating in a specialist military hospital in England. And I'll be joined in the studio by his father and former Belfast Lord Mayor, Bob.

See you Sunday, BBC1 at 1215 GMT


PS - A viewer writes that during a recent discussion on the programme the BBC captioning system for the hard of hearing referred erroneously to the new powers of "policing and dusting". So who gets the gun and who carries the feather duster then? Sheds new light on the DUP's reluctance to devolve power now.

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