The phrase ‘think global, act local’ originated in the environmental movement. It can be a glib substitute for serious attention to large problems. But it can also be a telling rejoinder to the temptations of top-down, big-government solutions. I believe it is relevant to our challenge in Afghanistan.
The potential problems emanating from that country are global in scope. Afghanistan is at the centre of international terrorism and the drugs trade. But the solutions need to be local — in tune with the needs and circumstances of the people. This was brought home to me on a trip there in July.
I decided that my first visit as Foreign Secretary outside Europe should be to Afghanistan, followed by Pakistan. The reason is that what has happened in Afghanistan, and what will happen there, directly affects British interests and British people in profound and direct ways.
Everyone should know that al-Qa’eda prepared its assault on the West — of which the horror of 9/11 was only the most atrocious example — in the valleys and hills of eastern Afghanistan. Now we know too that most British terrorism investigations trace back to the training camps just across the border, in western Pakistan. A 1,500-mile border that the Taleban and their al-Qa’eda associates cross and recross, despite both governments’ efforts to control that lethal traffic.
So our direct interests are at stake in tackling the terrorist threat. But so is our word. At Bonn, in December 2001, and again in London, in January 2006, the world made a pledge to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan: after nearly 30 years of unparalleled suffering at the hands of the Soviet Union, the warlords, and then the Taleban, we would help them all — women as well as men — to set up a state of their own, free from oppression.
As I saw for myself in Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand, reaching that destination is not going to be quick or easy. Afghanistan is two places from the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, poorer than most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A poverty compounded by war, exacerbated by the massive outward migration of human talent, and still darkened by the shadows of drought and famine.
Despite this you sense the quiet pride of the peoples of Afghanistan — Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and many others — and their determination to rebuild their country. I saw this for myself at the funeral of Afghanistan’s last king, Zahir Shah, who was deposed in 1973, but who returned in 2002 as ‘Father of the Nation’. As we sat under the plane trees in the gardens of the Royal Palace, listening to the funeral prayers, I saw around me a gathering of Afghans of every race and background, in a display of the unity that is at once possible and essential.
To serve our interests and those of ordinary Afghans the social, economic and political changes require stability. We must help Afghans squeeze out of their country, both physically and morally, those elements whose malign purpose is to deny Afghanistan the future it deserves. The Taleban, above all, whose objective — the imposition of a mediaeval emirate in the name of Islam across as much of Afghanistan as they could conquer — would consign millions of Afghan men and especially women to miseries they remember only too well. Taleban success would produce an opposite reaction from the North, bringing back the dark days of civil war. If we allow Afghanistan to become a failed state, it will always be a target for terrorist activity. If we can support the Afghan government in establishing stability and the rule of law, it can become a target for development.
The first step is to recognise the progress that has been achieved since 2001. A constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections — the elements of a functional democracy. The return of nearly five million refugees. Major improvements in healthcare, in life expectancy, in education and the provision of electricity. Now we need to build on this, not let it slip.
Second, we need always to ensure that this is — and is seen to be — an Afghan project. In London last year the Afghan government launched its National Development Strategy, which forms the basis for all its activity and is the vehicle for delivery of its side of the Afghanistan Compact. Our job, with our partners from around the world, is to work with Afghan institutions to create the space in which Afghans can do just that. We cannot succeed if we seek, by accident or design, to run Afghanistan as some kind of collective international protectorate. We cannot succeed if we seek to prescribe exactly how every Afghan village and valley is governed, how every town is policed, how every law is drafted and enforced. Instead, we will succeed if we help Afghans at all levels shape their own destiny.
Third, we need a comprehensive approach. We need to make efforts to rebuild the institutions of government and the security forces; to provide aid for reconstruction and development; to tackle the threat posed by the drug trade; and to provide military support to give the government space.
Afghans need to be presented with a clear choice: the Taleban threat funded by the drugs trade or our offer of real power. That means alongside troops maintaining peace, training Afghans to police themselves. As well as aid for reconstruction, it means creating the institutions that will protect property rights, enable Afghans to create their own wealth, and benefit through trade. It means creating political institutions that share power rather than just administer things.
Finally, we need to send a clear signal to allies and enemies that our commitment will be sustained, and will be matched by partners across the world. Our work in Afghanistan has brought together a global partnership of countries determined to do something to help, with contributions coming from Norway to New Zealand,
from Latvia to Singapore. We have a shared interest in Afghanistan’s future, and a shared commitment. A stable, successful Afghanistan, at peace with itself and with its neighbours, is a necessary condition for stability across South West Asia. A country true to its traditions and to its deep Islamic faith, but creating its own modern ways of thinking and doing.
The bravery and intelligence of the British soldiers, diplomats and aid workers I met in Afghanistan was immensely impressive. The fact that there are six Foreign Office staff applying for every Foreign Office job in Kabul makes me proud. British people do recognise that it is right for us to be engaged in the world.
The old divide in foreign policy was that the Left believed in soft power and the Right believed in hard power. I believe that there is a new progressive consensus to be forged. Progressive because its goals are to tackle inequality and obscurantism. Consensus because it uses all the tools available and recognises that soft power works best when hard power is in reserve. It is not an imperial project; that’s why thinking local as well as global makes sense in a modern world.