Exclusive: British commander voices fears that Taliban will exploit power vacuum in Afghanistan after west quits
The west must state clearly that it will not abandon Afghanistan after the handover of security to local forces in 2014 or risk further fighting in the region from an emboldened Taliban, the commander of British forces in the country has warned.
In his first interview since becoming second in command of the International Security and Assistance Force (Isaf), General James Bucknall told the Guardian “now is not the time to blink”, and pleaded for more patience in the decade-long campaign because progress was being made.
Bucknall spoke amid growing unease in Kabul about what will happen once Nato troops start to be drawn down later this year – an anxiety that has become acute since the death of Osama bin Laden – and the potential effect this may have on US policy. The US has been bankrolling the effort with up to $100bn (£61bn) a year and is negotiating a new strategic partnership with President Hamid Karzai.
One diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, said: “Afghanistan has been the centre of the world for the past 10 years. It isn’t anymore and the purse strings from donors will soon tighten. The international military drawdown will begin. There will then be a limited period where there is some money available for non-military efforts.
“After this, many Afghans fear they will then be abandoned again. The international community will say ‘job done’ and it will be case of presenting it as “Afghan-good enough.”
Bucknall warned that the Taliban would “come back at us as hard as they can” this summer and that the insurgency would not have ended by the end of 2014, when Afghan forces take over full responsibility for security.
That underlined the importance of committing to the country, and looking beyond last year’s Lisbon summit which set out an agreement for the transition of power.
Bucknall said: “This long-term commitment is absolutely key to our short-term progress. Why? Because until we have made it clear that the international community is not going to abandon Afghanistan in the near term, until that time, the insurgents will think that they can wait out the campaign.
“The Afghan people will not necessarily have the confidence to back their own government. And it is important that the regional players understand that the international community is going to be here for some time to come.
“December  is not a campaign end date but a waypoint – a point at which the coalition security posture changes from one that is in the lead to one that is mentoring and advising, but is still here.”
Bucknall conceded that the military had been guilty of “overpromising and underdelivering”, but said the campaign against the insurgency was working, with nightly special forces operations against mid-level Taliban commanders.
“It is important we send that message because until we [do] there is going to be tendency to think we can wait this out and start again, and this it not in any of our interests. There are no silver bullets in this campaign. We are fooling ourselves if we think there are. There are no short cuts for getting to where we need to get to. Long-term commitment is important for short-term success.”
Reflecting on the military operation in Afghanistan, he said: “We have only really been playing this sensibly, or properly, with the right resources from last year.
“We expect violence to increase but I would make the point strongly that this should not be taken as a signal of a faltering campaign but one that is contesting the insurgents more broadly than we have done before.”
Bucknall said British forces were likely to remain in Afghanistan for many years after 2014, albeit in a different role. One piece of encouragement for the military has been the number of insurgents who have joined the reconciliation and rehabilitation process, which allows them to rejoin their villages with honour if they give up fighting.
In the last six weeks, the number of registrations has doubled to 1,300, and another 2,000 are beginning the process.
Diplomats admit they are sensing Afghan anxiety about the future and see the need to provide reassurances.
Simon Gass, Nato’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, told the Guardian there was a need for the US, Nato and other countries to “define the post-2014 relationship with Afghanistan”.
He said: “We need to give Afghans the assurances that they are after. We need to create a framework and confidence that they are not being abandoned.”
Sir William Patey, Britain’s ambassador to Kabul, added: “In the gap between what they can afford, and what they need, we will have to help them. That is part of the commitment beyond 2015.”
He said real transformation would take two generations “of kids that have been educated”.
“The first lot to graduate into the workforce and the civil service to be followed up by another generation. Over 10 to 15 years [it will] have a huge impact. We are essentially buying time for Afghanistan to educate its people.”
He also cautioned about what the new Afghanistan may look like.
“The Afghans will be in charge. And that will be frustrating for some people in Europe because things will happen [here] that they won’t like.
“This is an Islamically conservative country and will remain Islamically conservative and it will have a value system that is different from ours.”
However, Patey said there was an opportunity now for the Taliban to talk peace “and come in from the cold”.