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Fox: UK in Afghanistan 'to make Britain safer'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 22 May 2010

As Defence Secretary Liam Fox announces the UK is not in Afghanistan to educate "a broken 13th century country", Col Richard Kemp tells Channel 4 News we must win the Afghan people's support.

British troop in Afghanistan (Reuters)

In an interview in today's Times, Liam Fox says that British troops should start coming home in the next five years.

"I want to talk to people on the ground, our trainers, to see whether there is room to accelerate it (the process) without diminishing the quality," he says.

The defence secretary stresses that Britain is not a "global policeman", and continues: "We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened."

The comments came as a cabinet delegation, including Dr Fox, Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, touched down in Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials.

Speaking on the flight to Afghanistan, the international development secretary appeared to contradict Dr Fox today. "We need to ensure that we help the Afghan people to build a functioning state," he said.

"That's about providing basic education and healthcare facilities. But it's also about ensuring that there are opportunities for promoting livelihoods, that people have jobs.

"That's one of the key areas that we have to address."

Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, told Channel 4 News: "Liam Fox is right in that the objective of us being there is to prevent Afghanistan from falling into the hands of extemists who would be able to use the country to plan and carry out attacks against British people.

But Colonel Kemp continued: "In order to achieve that, we have to be able to assist the Afghan government in delivering for their people security and a quality of life that will make them more inclined to reject the Taliban's agenda.

"That includes education, reconstruction, development and all the other vital elements of the state apparatus."

We cannot afford this blurring of purpose
The situation in Afghanistan is very grave. Attacks on security forces in the six-month period to May were up 82 per cent on the same period last year, and there was a similar increase in attacks against civilians, writes Colonel Richard Kemp.

As we could still lose this war, it is encouraging to see a new sense of purpose from the coalition. I do not remember the three cabinet ministers most closely involved in the war visiting the theatre at the same time before.

Driven personally by the prime minister, the unity of purpose that this shows needs to be applied now to every aspect of the direction of this campaign. To regain public support here, that unity must also be applied to the government's message.

The apparent differences between Liam Fox, William Haig and Andrew Mitchell - whether real or wrongly interpreted by the media - was not a great start. We cannot afford this apparent blurring of purpose in a war. The war cabinet must make it a priority to exercise ruthless control over departmental communications concerning the conflict.

The reality is that both points of view are right. Improving education in Afghanistan is not our purpose, but nation building - including education - is an essential element of our counterinsurgency campaign.

We have to do what we can to help improve the quality of life as well as the security of the Afghan people, so that they see the legitimate government as a much better alternative than the savage rule of the Taliban. Without this we will not win the hearts and minds of the people and we will not win the war.

But the reason we need to win the war is to prevent Afghanistan from being taken over by extremists who can again use the country as a safe haven from which to attack the west. Many Britons died in the terror attack on the twin towers which was launched from Afghanistan.

Equally important, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in Pakistan. They face their own increasingly dangerous insurgency. Should we leave Afghanistan to the Taliban, the country would then become a safe haven from where the Pakistan insurgency could be strengthened. The last thing we need is a nuclear armed state falling into extremist hands.

Dr Fox is right that we must withdraw our troops as rapidly as possible. Neither we nor the Afghan people want them there a moment longer than is absolutely necessary.

But it is absolutely necessary that they are there until the job is done and we have achieved our national objectives in the region. And it is vital that the Afghan people - as well as our other allies - understand that.

If they believe we are going to withdraw precipitately and leave them to the savagery of the Taliban, they will not give us their support. And without that support we have no hope of winning.

Colonel Richard Kemp is a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. He is the author of Attack State Red, an account of combat operations in Afghanistan

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has said its top foreign policy priority is the strategy for Afghanistan, where Britain has 9.500 troops.

The British contingent is part of a US-dominated force expected to grow to around 140000 in a few weeks as Washington sends more troops to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned withdrawal from July 2011.

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