Afghanistan progress needs sustained international support, says former US official

Behind the bombs are big strides. To withdraw now would be irresponsible

The US and the wider international community has a “moral responsibility” to make a long-term commitment to stabilising Afghanistan, says David Sedney, who was the American Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence in Afghanistan. Video: The Detail


The United States and the wider international community have a “moral responsibility” to make a long-term commitment to stabilising Afghanistan, a former senior US official has said.

David Sedney was the American deputy assistant secretary of defence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 until May last year.

He told Northern Ireland-based news website the Detail the war in Afghanistan had seen a focus on counter-terrorism tactics that antagonised whole communities and “created literally millions of enemies”. Speaking prior to the pledge by US president Barack Obama to deliver a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, Sedney said the international community had to deliver a long-term plan.

“Afghanistan has shown by a number of objective standards to have made great progress in many areas, social indicators, health indicators, over the last 10 years,” he said. “And that’s very different from people’s perception of Afghanistan – that it’s a place full of bombs and booms and nasty behaviour. In fact, the lifespan of the average Afghan has gone up 15 years. Infant mortality has gone down by about 300 per cent. Many more women survive child birth than did 10 years ago.

‘Right direction’

“The average Afghan consumes more calories than they did 10 years ago. And despite the reporting that we see here, Afghans say their society is headed in the right direction, and they believe what the US, the United Kingdom and the international community has done is very valuable, and they want us to stay and continue that help.” He said the progress was “due more to the Afghan people than anything else”.

Sedney is now part of the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a coalition that aims to preserve the progress. But he said there were serious mistakes made.

“One of the major mistakes is we switched our attention to Iraq where we never should have been, and pulled it away from Afghanistan and made it a second-tier effort.

“We also focused on what is often called a counter-terrorism strategy, particularly during the early years of the war where, in our zeal to try and uncover the supporters of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden himself, we carried out a continuing wave of attacks and arrest in ways that were so antithetical to the Afghan culture that we created literally millions of enemies.

“Those kind of things created many more enemies than they discovered. And, of course, we found later that Osama bin Laden was not in Afghanistan, he had been in Pakistan all that period of time.”

Sedney was in Belfast to speak at Queen’s University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice. He discussed comparisons between efforts to end conflict in Northern Ireland and in Afghanistan, and was joined by Michael Semple, visiting research professor in the institute, and a former deputy to the EU special representative for Afghanistan from 2004-2007.

Sedney met people involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland. He said the success in bringing an end to the Troubles had inspired others.

“I think it’s a great tribute to the people of Northern Ireland that they haven’t gone back again.” But he said Afghanistan required a lengthy commitment, as the US has already shown in Northern Ireland.

“In the early 1950s we began a massive irrigation project in southern Afghanistan that brought water to areas that had previously been desert and enabled people to begin planting cotton. And that was a success for a while. But then during the war with the Soviet Union, the cotton trade fell apart and the people there began planting poppy.

From cotton to heroin

“And now today in almost every country in the world, the majority of opium poppy that is produced in Afghanistan is exported and is used to fuel heroin addicts. Not the intention of the people who built the dams in the 1950s, but the impact.”

He said of the future: “I believe that if we were to abandon Afghanistan that it would descend into some kind of chaos that would be negative, not just for Afghanistan and for the region . . .

“Our various interventions over the years have played a role in destabilising Afghanistan, despite our good intentions. If we were to just throw Afghanistan aside at this point and say we are going to concentrate on some other important deserving issue, we will have left behind a problem that we have created and will have made it worse by our abandoning.”