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Campaign In Afghanistan Regrettable But Necessary

'Regrettable But Necessary: The Military Campaign In Afghanistan'


What a difference a week makes. Last weekend, the main criticism of the military action in Afghanistan was that it appeared not to be working. This weekend, the criticism is that military action has moved too fast.

The truth is, no one could have predicted the timing of the Taliban collapse. Military conflict is inherently unpredictable, however meticulous the planning: there are too many variables, especially with the uncertainties both about the capacity of the Northern Alliance and Taliban morale.

There are still enormous challenges ahead. The military action is not over: the terrorists are still a threat and we still have to remove that threat. And the humanitarian and political challenges are just as important. Britain is putting the same effort, energy and commitment into these challenges as we have into the military action.

As a leading European nation, Britain cannot afford to turn its back on the world. Engaging with global problems is both a moral duty and a practical imperative. But the real test of our commitment is not our words but our deeds. And sometimes it requires difficult decisions to make a real difference. That is what we are now seeing in Afghanistan.

Last week, British troops were placed in danger trying to get Bagram airfield ready for flights into Afghanistan. Proper air access will allow humanitarian flights to get in. And it will mean the leaders of all Afghan communities can come in safety for the debates about the future.

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Those who have criticised our response to the atrocities of 11 September are entitled to their democratic right to dissent. But I ask them whether the world would be a safer place today without the Taliban's power broken, and how else it would have been broken if not through military action? And I ask them to hear the voices of the people of Kabul, who for the first time in five years are celebrating simple freedoms this weekend like enjoying music and seeing their children play.

The humanitarian effort has been a key priority for all of us, all along. The difference today is that, thanks to the military advances, the life-saving efforts of the World Food Programme and the aid agencies have been made infinitely easier, as they no longer face the obstruction of the Taliban regime.

For the last five years, the Afghan people have suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of a regime which, in the meantime, turned this once great country into a terrorist haven. Now we have the chance to show the Afghan people, and the world, there is a better way.

The Northern Alliance was one of many groupings involved in the bloody conflict in Afghanistan at a time, following Soviet withdrawal, when the world had turned its back on that benighted country. The difference today is that the international community is united and actively engaged. The Alliance knows the world is watching closely. We expect it to act with restraint and wisdom at this sensitive time.

That Kabul fell with relatively little bloodshed is encouraging. But it cannot be allowed to become the headquarters of another narrow faction. It must become the capital of an inclusive, multi-ethnic Afghan state, generating wealth and welfare for all of its people and enjoying international respect.

Among the many conversations I had with colleagues in New York last week, one in particular struck me. The Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, who has long experience of neighbouring Afghanistan, remarked that no Afghani under the age of 25 knows anything but bloodshed, strife, oppression and injustice. He said the spiritual regeneration of Afghanistan should be one of the key priorities for its reconstruction, and agreed that the reopening of Kabul University would be an excellent start down this road.

The world has let Afghanistan down in the past. Malign interference from outside has helped to turn the country into a vast killing field for decades. Britain, with its record of meddling in Afghan affairs in the nineteenth century, should understand this better than most.

As I said in my speech to the UN General Assembly plenary last Sunday, there must be no more Great Games with the Afghan people as the pawns. Instead, this time the world is united in its resolve to help the Afghan people. Indeed, this unity of purpose goes wider than Afghanistan. Conflict, poverty, discrimination and injustice still blight the lives of millions in every part of the globe.

Where we allow societies to disintegrate or states to fail, we put at risk the basis of global society itself. Achieving an alternative vision, of peaceful co-operation among stable nations, has taken on a new urgency. We are further forward towards this only as a result of the military action. That may be an uncomfortable truth for some: but there was no other way.

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