The international community must “up its game” on political progress in Afghanistan or risk wasting a decade of sacrifice by British soldiers, Labour leader Ed Miliband warned today.
Miliband expressed fears that the country would slip back into being a failed state when combat troops are withdrawn in 2014, during a visit to the capital Kabul for talks with president Hamid Karzai.
He flew in after visiting troops serving in southern Helmand, where he expressed surprise at the level of progress being made in training the Afghan security forces ahead of the international pullout.
Despite giving his backing to the planned withdrawal date – reaffirmed at last weekend’s Nato summit in Chicago – and to Prime Minister David Cameron’s approach, he said there was “a long way to go”.
In an address to troops at the end of a tour of British bases yesterday, Mr Miliband told a gathering of troops that political failure must not be allowed to undermine their “extraordinary” efforts.
A total of 414 members of UK forces have died since operations in Afghanistan began in October 2001.
Speaking at the British Embassy ahead of talks with Mr Karzai – as well as senior ministers and opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah – he said: “It is incredibly eye-opening coming out and actually seeing what they are doing, throwing themselves in harm’s way, every day going out on patrol.
“Seeing it up close, with people who are young enough to be my son or daughter doing that, is incredibly humbling.
“I think the best way we can honour the sacrifices our troops have been making is to make sure that they have the best support when they come back home.
“But also, the international community needs to up its game in getting a lasting political settlement here in Afghanistan because I think that is necessary in order to prevent Afghanistan slipping back into being a failed state and there is a lot more work to do to make that happen.”
He went on “In this final phase it is very important that we don’t take our eye off the ball. I do not think the Government is, I am not criticising the Government.
“The Prime Minister is right to set a timetable. I think we should stick to the timetable.
“We have invested a lot. Many of our troops have made huge sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice. The best way we can honour that is to ensure the political settlement we need.”
He said it would be wrong for anyone – including those who opposed the campaign in the first place – to argue for the troops to be pulled out before 2014, despite increased public hostility to the war.
French president Francois Hollande was in Kabul for talks with Mr Karzai while the Labour leader – who is an ally of the newly-elected Socialist – was in Helmand, to explain his decision to accelerate France’s pullout.
Miliband said: “President Hollande has to make his own decisions.
“What is interesting about Afghanistan is that whether you were for the mission originally or against the mission, to suddenly up sticks now would not be the right thing to do.”
Miliband’s visit to the troops yesterday was kept secret for security reasons.
After flying in to Camp Bastion, the UK’s main base in southern Helmand, Mr Miliband started the day by chatting with soldiers over a full English breakfast.
Under a hot sun, he then headed to provincial capital Lashkar Gah to talk about the progress of Afghan control with the commander of the Helmand task force Brigadier Doug Chalmers.
A moment of reflection followed as he stopped, flanked by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, before a memorial to some of the fallen British troops at a patrol base in Nahr-e Saraj district.
The pause to remember the dead was made more poignant by the flag of The Yorkshire Regiment, fluttering at half mast in honour of the six men – five from the regiment’s 3rd Battalion – lost when their Warrior armoured vehicle was blown up by a massive improvised explosive device on March 6.
Some of their comrades were on hand to show the politicians the range of hardware used by British forces in the field – from Mastiff armoured personnel carriers to medical kits and search dogs.
One dog, named Benny, was put through his paces as the politicians looked on, a little unsure of the canine member of the crew, one military chief joking: “You’re all eight to ten inches away from a ‘reshuffle’ there!”.
All three of the districts where the UK is involved have now been transferred to Afghan control – with some troops telling Miliband their local counterparts have become 10 times more efficient within just a couple of years.
The transition process is due to be complete across Afghanistan by the middle of next year ahead of the 2014 Nato pullout deadline. Talking with an Afghan colonel, Mr Miliband praised the “tremendous strides forward”.
Miliband denied his trip to Afghanistan was simply a bid to boost his public image in a bid to take advantage of the Government’s current difficulties.
“My purpose for being here is to express the deep sense of gratitude I have for our troops.
“We are working with the Government on many of these issues. Staying away and not coming here would send the wrong message to our troops.
“People are so used to politicians having argy-bargy with each other, opposing each other apparently for the sake of it.
“On this one that’s not what we are doing and I think that’s the right approach.”