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FactCheck: why are we in Afghanistan?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 06 November 2009

Gordon Brown gave a high-profile speech setting out why British troops are in Afghanistan. But how do the reasons he gives today compare to those given by our leaders over the past eight years?

Gordon Brown (credit:Reuters)

The background

More than half - 57 per cent - of the public think there is no hope of winning the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a Channel 4 News/YouGov poll found this week, after the poignant deaths of seven British servicemen.

The PM then made a high-profile speech setting out why our troops are in the country.

British troops were deployed to Afghanistan eight years ago, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. By 2003, there were a mere few hundred there, as Iraq became the focus of our attentions.

But in 2006, troop numbers were increased; now, our troops have withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan is the focus once again.

So why are they there? In a slight departure from the usual FactCheck format, we're not so much checking a particular claim in Brown's speech today, as looking at the reasons our politicians have given for our military involvement in Afghanistan, and how these have changed over the years.

The analysis

Then-PM Tony Blair set out our "immediate objectives" to a parliament recalled after the September 11th attacks, on 4 Oct 2001.

"We must bring bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders to justice and eliminate the terrorist threat that they pose, and we must ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism," he said.

"If the Taliban regime will not comply with that objective, we must bring about change in that regime to ensure that Afghanistan's links to international terrorism are broken."

That's a fairly clear - if not necessarily simple - objective. Blair also emphasised the humanitarian dimension, saying the "humanitarian coalition to help the people of Afghanistan is as vital as the military action itself".

Four days later, after allied forces had made their first strikes, Blair spoke again. Initial indications were, he said, that the strikes had been successful in achieving their objective of hitting al-Qaida and the supporting Taliban infrastructure.

The mission was closely associated with terrorism, and the recent attacks, though Blair indicated a long-term commitment: "We are in this for the long haul," Blair said. "Even when al-Qaida is dealt with, the job will not be over. The network of international terrorism is not confined to it... We know that, if not stopped, the terrorists will do it again, possibly this time in Britain."

In emphasising why Britain had to act, he touched on wide-ranging issue, including Taliban involvement in Britain's heroin supply, and the large number of refugees from Afghanistan.

But our military objectives seemed fairly clear, he said, relating to terrorism. "People often ask whether getting rid of the Taliban regime is a specific objective. As time goes on, it is increasingly difficult to understand how the terrorists and the Taliban can be distinguished... our aim is to shut down the terrorist network."

Blair also said it was a "a political aim," should the Taliban fall, "to establish a more representative Government who are based on all ethnic groupings and have broad support in the country".

Fast forward a year. In his speech to the 2002 Labour conference, things had moved on to the future: Blair talked of "a coalition to re-build the nation of Afghanistan as strong as the coalition to defeat the Taliban."

In the same speech two years later, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Blair linked both Iraq and Afghanistan to terrorism, and to the need to spread democracy.

"Military action will be futile unless we address the conditions in which this terrorism breeds and the causes it preys upon," he said. "That is why it is worth staying the course to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, because then people the world over will see that this is not and has never been some new war of religion; but the oldest struggle humankind knows, between liberty or oppression, tolerance or hate; between government by terror or by the rule of law."

In January 2006, then-Defence Secretary John Reid made a statement to the Commons on the increased deployment of British troops in Afghanistan.

No more talk of attacking terrorist training camps and smoking out bin Laden - now the "clear role for the military" was "helping to create and to maintain a framework of security" on which Afghan institutions could thrive.

A month later, he was asked specifically in a written parliamentary question what the key military aims were.

Reconstruction and democracy were again key, including a reduction in the drug trade. Here's the answer in full:

"Our aims in Afghanistan are: democratic government that can maintain the rule of law and deliver basic services; a sustainable security environment where the population is free from coercion; a viable legitimate market economy that is increasingly able to support basic social needs and reduce poverty; and a sustainable decrease in poppy cultivation and drug trafficking. The extent to which Afghanistan's own ministries can meet these objectives themselves forms the basis of our criteria for success."

More recently, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth told the Labour Party conference in September that Britain was in Afghanistan: "as the result of a sober assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain. We are there to prevent the Taliban returning and again giving al-Qaida free reign. We are there to ensure our national security."

Earlier this week, immigration minister Phil Woolas told MPs that, if troops were withdrawn and the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, more asylum seekers would come our way.

"An argument that is not aired strongly enough in my view is the benefit of the presence of our armed forces and other countries' is to help us control immigration."

Today in his speech, Brown reiterated the early aims, saying we were "fighting there, so that we are safer at home" and linking our presence to the need to prevent al-Qaida-related terrorist attacks including September 11th, Mumbai, Bali, and 7/7 in London.

"So when people ask why we are in Afghanistan - why over 40 countries have troops on the ground - I ask them to look at this list of terrible atrocities," he said.

The verdict

Back in 2001, Tony Blair said our troops were going to Afghanistan with the clear military objective of rooting out Osama bin Laden and terrorist training camps, and stopping Afghanistan from being a haven for international terrorism.

He said we were there for the long haul, and his rhetoric also included a number of issues - humanitarian, democracy, drug trafficking - which came to assume greater priority once the initial military operations were over.

Today, Brown still links our presence in Afghanistan with al-Qaida and the need to combat terrorism. And to do this, we need a stable and secure Afghanistan.

But with this stability being linked over time to factors ranging from reducing the drug trade to the impact on British immigration, quite where our mission starts and ends seems a greater and greater task.

The sources

Hansard: terrorism debate 4 October 2001
Hansard: terrorism debate 8 October 2001
Tony Blair Labour conference speech 2002
Tony Blair conference speech 2004
Hansard: John Reid statement January 2006
Hansard: John Reid written answer February 2006
Gordon Brown speech September 2009
Bob Ainsworth Labour conference speech 2009
Gordon Brown speech November 2009

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