The South Asia and Middle East (SAME) Forum hosted a special session on the topic of ‘Afghanistan: Looking to the Future’ on the 25th October 2018 in the Houses of Commons. The discussion began with Mr Khalid Nadeem, the Chairman, highlighting the tragic death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist, a point which was commented on by both Ivan Lewis MP and Jim Shannon MP.
Ivan Lewis MP related the death to the breakdown in international law and norms that is becoming globally prevalent and the increasing number of ‘big players’ on the global stage who are tearing up the international rulebook. Mr Khalid Nadeem noted that it was imperative to maintain close defence and intelligence relations with Saudi Arabia, especially relating to counter terrorism whose help has proved invaluable to the UK. He also stated that it was critical the UK maintain a constant dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because of the aforementioned security issues.
The discussion soon focused on the recent Afghan elections that took place last Saturday, in which one-third of the polling stations did not open for security-related reasons and voter turnout was lower than its previous two elections. On a brighter note the BBC World Service journalist Mrs Sana Safi noted the introduction of biometric registration technology in the election and the fact that it was the first to occur without substantial international intervention.
Ivan Lewis MP conducted the first speech on the UK’s perspective on Afghanistan, bringing to light his concerns regarding the dysfunctional political process and the possible departure of the U.S. from Afghanistan under President Trump. He noted that such an eventuality would reverse more than decade-long progress whilst further extenuating an on-going cycle of young men being drawn into the Taliban lines as a result of economic exclusion. He also highlighted the importance for a regional solution if long term peace was going to be achieved. Further, he expressed hope regarding the new generation of candidates and youth that were becoming more politically engaged in Afghanistan. However, he did note the deteriorating security case, specifically in the elections which saw multiple attacks on election officials and security services.
US analyst Johnathan Paris also praised the impact of the U.S. in the Afghanistan war highlighting that many Afghans voted in the last elections. This commitment to democratic elections is partly due to the U.S. approach towards Afghanistan. He therefore emphasised the crucial role of current U.S generals in preventing any premature policy moves from the Trump administration towards Afghanistan. Jim Shannon MP began speaking about the impact of the Afghan conflict on religious toleration in the region following a Q&A session. He criticised the increasing levels of sexual and religious violence in the region, citing several examples of different faiths being marginalised and persecuted within Afghanistan. Mr Shannon expressed deep reservations about Saudi Arabia in terms of its failures in religious and civil liberties, particularly in the case of the Jamal Khashoggi affair, having been concerned for a long time about the Saudi Arabian government.
Dr Nasir Shansab, Afghan writer and businessman, followed up with a speech on the economic prospects of Afghanistan. He highlighted Afghanistan’s poor economic conditions and fragile economy. Dr Shansab saw little hope for the future of Afghanistan’s economy, pointing to its high infant mortality rate – which is one of the highest in the world – and to the average male life expectancy of only 45 years. Furthermore, he pointed to Afghanistan’s reliance on international aid and its illegal opium trade, and its widespread and systemic corruption.
Sir Barney White-Spunner, former Lieutenant General, commented on defence strategy within Afghanistan. He noted the relative success of military intervention in Afghanistan whilst putting its troubles down to a disunited economy and hostile tensions between ground actors. Furthermore, he mentioned the troubles facing those supporting intervention, mainly from men such as President Trump who are raising questions about whether intervention has been value for money and why the U.S. should continue to act as the world police. Sir White-Spunner highlighted the importance of recognising that the Taliban are not a perfectly united front and that the ability for potential peace talks involving the organisation’s representatives, to have an impact on areas such as drug-smuggling in some regions is likely to be low. Thus, suggesting that a solution to the conflict may lie in identifying fractions within the Taliban and exploiting its disunity. He argued that since narcotics was the main driver for the Taliban, greater focus should be put on this area. He also disagreed with the practicality of attempts to find an alternative cash-crop with which to replace opium production, citing these as often naive.
The Chairman, Mr Khalid Nadeem, closed with a final comment on the importance of these fora to keep close attention on Afghanistan and ensure that politicians, and the public alike, do not become complacent in what has now been a 17-year conflict.
Contributors: Sarmed Hyder, Marketa Jerabek, Luke Oades, Johann Power