Afghanistan - Why Does It Matter?

Wanha Satama Conference Center, Hall A · 25.01.2011 17:00 - 18:30

In 2003 NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. NATO has recently outlined a transition process that is conditions-based but not calendar driven. The transition will follow a comprehensive approach, taking into account the security, development, and governance of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. As the situation in Afghanistan evolves and moves on the international community is asking itself where is the engagement going, and what does our end goal look like from a civilian and political perspective? And perhaps most importantly, why does it matter?

Opening Remarks:
Ambassador Matthew Lodge, Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Finland

Keynote Speaker:
Ambassador Mark Sedwill, Senior Civilian Representative, NATO, Afghanistan

Dr Barbara Zanchetta, Researcher, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Dr. Mika Aaltola, Director, Global Security Research Programme, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Summary of the Seminar

The opening remarks of the seminar were presented by the British Ambassador to Finland Matthew Lodge. In his brief remarks he emphasized the diverse role Finland has played – and continues to play, in both the military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan. Ambassador Lodge also saw it as imperative that the multinational efforts continue in spite of the somewhat rocky road that is envisioned for the coming years. The stabilization and eventual prosperity of Afghanistan is integral on two levels, according to Ambassador Lodge. Firstly, to reduce and diminish the global security threat that Islamic terrorists pose today, part of the solution lies in a secure and stable Afghanistan. Hence secondly, a democratically governed Afghanistan, and an Afghanistan that reflects its history and culture must be achieved.

The keynote speech was delivered by Ambassador Mark Sedwill, currently serving as the Senior Civilian NATO representative in Afghanistan. With his long service in the region to draw upon, as well from working closely with both top military commanders and Afghan regional and provincial power brokers, he presented a comprehensive account of the situation in Afghanistan today.

Ambassador Sedwill was of the opinion that, despite the difficult year of 2010, clear improvements have been made in the military campaign. As a result, the confidence in the ISAF operation among the Afghan people has improved, leading to a shift in prevailing attitudes. For the coming years Ambassador Sedwill sees necessary a shift of focus to governance, and to prepare for a gradual withdrawal starting in 2014. Emphasis must be placed on cementing good governance for all regions of Afghanistan with, however, the traditions, culture and the sentiments of Afghan people being placed in the core of all measures. For a provincial government in Afghanistan to be successful it must be based on the principle of local protection and federal policing. Due to the ethnic diversity and tribal ancestry of Afghanistan, the security forces in charge of protecting particular regions must be from that region. Not taking this into account can result in tribal warlords setting up regional militias to oppose the forces of the central government. With policing, however, it is of the essence that it is conducted in a detached, centralized manner in order to gain the credibility in the eyes of the local people.

Also the problem of vast and excruciating poverty among Afghans was taken up by Ambassador Sedwill. A nearly non-existent health-care system has led to skyrocketing infant death rates. Though the primary solution here is money, he also emphasized the importance of education. A crucial part of good governance is also a well-established judiciary system; corruption for example is rampant in the country today, as was wide-spread election fraud in the 2009 and 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections. Legitimizing the Afghan government, Ambassador Sedwill believes, will give a more positive meaning for the word government among the Afghan people, helping to gain their support. Attention must also be directed to the Afghan economy; in 2010 for example substantial mineral reserves were uncovered in Afghanistan, presenting both opportunities and challenges for the country. The unearthed natural resources must be used in such a manner that benefits the people and not the Taleban power players

According to Ambassador Sedwill indeed only one forth of the Taleban fighters in Afghanistan are of the hard-line “terrorist” type with the objective of reinstating a Taleban controlled central government in Afghanistan – the vast majority only has aspirations towards stable and strong regional governance. It hence begs the question: why are so much resources put into fighting the Taleban with little regard to opportunities for appeasement and reconciliation? Ambassador Sedwill concluded his speech by offering some reflections on the role of Pakistan. His firm view was that it is in the best interests of Pakistan to see a stable Afghanistan and region as a whole. Though the Pakistani efforts in combating the Taleban on their side of the border have drawn a lot of criticism, Ambassador Sedwill emphasized the military efforts as well as political will and cooperation among the Pakistani leadership.

Providing the scholarly perspective to the discussion was FIIA researcher Dr. Barbara Zanchetta. She admitted that the war is also a very emotional issue to the countries involved, but continued by saying that there are very compelling rational arguments to why the troops in Afghanistan should not completely withdraw and leave the country on its own devises. Dr. Zanchatta argued that Afghanistan matters for three reasons. Firstly, for the United States it is a war of perceptions; having been in Afghanistan for almost a decade pulling out now would be perceived as a lack of perseverance and greatly reduce the country’s credibility on the world stage. A historical paradox is that the Mujahadeen the US previously supported against the Soviet forces are now the very same people fighting against the United States.

Secondly from a NATO perspective it is a question of solidifying the organization as a prominent player in the world. By embarking on its first extra-territorial operation, in Afghanistan, NATO took on a new role on the world stage. From a broad geopolitical view, Dr Zanchetta stated that the conflict has regional ramifications with global repercussions. Here she mentioned particularly a nuclear-armed Pakistan. She concluded by saying that thirdly, Afghanistan is a way for the West to define its complex relationship with the Islamic world and thus work to create a more prosperous interaction between the two.

The Q & A session sparked some lively debate among the participants. The questions related primarily to the future of Afghanistan, and many in the audience hoped to get an answer to when a withdrawal of forces would be relevant. Others were curious about the prospect of “talking to the Taleban” whereas one question was about Finland’s future roles in Afghanistan. Ambassador Sedwill stated that the date for a gradual turn-over of responsibilities to the Afghan security forces has been set at 2014 but reiterated his earlier statement that NATO will maintain a presence in the country in an advice and assist capacity long after that date. The Ambassador also said that some reconciliatory measures have been successful among the more moderate regional Taleban and that such measures will continue. He also said that Finland’s already diverse role in Afghanistan can well be expanded to the civilian side by introducing more Finnish expertise in such fields as medicine, aviation and law. In his concluding remarks, Ambassador Sedwill once again argued for a long-term commitment that will bring about positive change to Afghanistan, the region and the global security situation as a whole.