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British MP David Miliband on the war in Afghanistan
Jim Middleton talks to British Labour MP David Miliband about the future of Afghanistan.

US president, Barack Obama, made a surprise visit to Afghanistan during the week, and declared that defeat of al-Qaeda was now within reach.

He also delivered an address to the American people, appealing for their support in building a peaceful Afghanistan.

David Miliband was British foreign secretary between 2007 and 2010. He has long argued the need for a comprehensive framework for negotiations to bring the conflict in Afghanistan to an end.
JIM MIDDLETON: These were some of the words of Barack Obama at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan: "we can see the light of a new day on the horizon in Afghanistan."

Can you see the same light the US president is apparently got in his eye sight?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that given the realities of American politics, the president spoke some important words in Bagram Air Base. His clear view that America has continuing interests in Afghanistan, but not continuing bases, I think is an important signal, both to the Afghans and to the other regional powers.

His very explicit statement that he is talking to the Taliban about a post-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) state of affairs in Afghanistan I think is significant. And his emphasis on the responsibilities of the regional players, Pakistan and others, is, I think, very important.

So I think he's set a very clear standard for the NATO alliance, which is obviously meeting in Chicago later this month.

JIM MIDDLETON: Now you were saying as recently as a month or so ago that an end date is not the same as an end game, and that discussion is really the only way through this matter. Are you still concerned that we are, in fact, as you also said at the time, paying the price for the dominance of military tactics over political strategy? Because there was quite a bit of military in what the president had to say, maybe a bit less than you would have hoped on the question of the political?

DAVID MILIBAND: I do remain concerned that the end date is clearer than the end game.

Everyone knows that the campaign in Afghanistan won't be won by military means alone. In fact, we aim to withdraw. And when we withdraw we need a stable equilibrium in the villages and valleys of Afghanistan. That is going to have to include the people who are currently part of the insurgency; or at least all of those who are not affiliated to al-Qaeda. And it is going to require restraint and care from the neighbours of Afghanistan. That takes a political process.

Now I understand why the president emphasised the importance of the continuing training of the Afghan Security forces; it is important to make sure they are not going to be rolled over after NATO forces leave. But my very strong view is, in the end, if the politics isn't right in Afghanistan and in the region, in the wider South Asian region, then it's going to be very, very hard to contain the inter-ethnic strife in that country.

JIM MIDDLETON: You were suggesting earlier that the president is moving more closely towards a prescription that you first unveiled, or something like a year ago, for discussion, which centre on regional engagement, a UN negotiator, those sorts of things. But do you think that in arriving at that the US president is a little bit late and that things may have actually got beyond that?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well America is still a big player by any manner of means.

The president didn't endorse the idea of a UN sponsored mediator. I think that is still essential. And I think that the longer we wait the harder it's going to be to get the kind of goals fulfilled that we have rightly set. However, I think one that has to also be conscious that the American political system places extreme constraints on the American president. I think that within those constraints he set out the five elements of an agenda from the military through the diplomatic to the development parts of it in a clear way.

And he's also I think set some important lines in the sand. There's been this ongoing debate, for example, about whether or not America sought bases in Afghanistan. He's made clear that, while there will be counter terrorism and training capacity there, he is not seeking permanent bases. That's important in setting the agenda for the rest of South Asia, for the other countries like Pakistan, India, even the Iranians who need to accommodate to American decision.

JIM MIDDLETON: Isn't the problem, though, that as time goes on and as time runs out as it were, the incentive for the Taliban to seriously engage in negotiation evaporates; that there's really no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate? They just simply wait out the Americans.

DAVID MILIBAND: I think you're right to say that there are dangers. But I think, if I may say so, it is not right to say the Taliban control large swathes of the country. But I think the end date clarifies for the insurgency what the time table is.

Now, they've always had a strategy of trying to wait us out, but equally they're under a lot of pressure and want to come home. The leaks of some of the NATO interrogations of some of the captured Taliban prisoners that came out in the end of last year show that actually they want to go home, especially those who are stuck in Pakistan.

And I think there is a weariness of war in Afghanistan. The danger is without a political settlement it goes backwards to a renewed civil war.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject before we let you go, and much closer to home, I take it you agree with your Labour colleagues that Rupert Murdoch is not fit to run a major company like BSkyB.

But is it not the case that, because the conservatives on that committee do not agree it's most unlikely his company will in fact be stripped of its right to run such an important media outlet?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think what's important is that the Ofcom, the Office of Communications, which has the responsibility, the statutory, judicial responsibility of judging the fit and proper test under the Communications Act is allowed to finish its work. That's, I think, the right process.

Obviously the report is pretty damning. It goes through in voluminous detail the farrago of the last few years of sustained phone hacking and other misdemeanours. And I think that's an important part of the transparency that in the end is going to be essential to bringing a new kind of political culture to Britain.

JIM MIDDLETON: We had a set of very credible answers from you.

David Miliband, thank you very much indeed.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thanks very much, indeed.
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