x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UAE envoy reaffirms Afghan troop role

'Our troops have an easier time because they are more accepted. They see us as close to them, as fellow Muslims.'

THE HAGUE // UAE forces will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future to help bolster stability in the region, a senior Government official said yesterday. "The UAE feels it is a leader in terms of monetary donations, troop contribution and humanitarian aid," said the UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef al Otaiba. "We have found that our troops have an easier time, because they are more accepted. They see us as close to them, as fellow Muslims."

Mr Otaiba was speaking in an interview at The Hague, where delegates from more than 70 nations have gathered to set a new strategy for Afghanistan. Over the past five years the UAE has contributed troops - about 250 at present - material and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid as part of a multinational effort to secure and rebuild Afghanistan after the invasion in 2001. Reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan needed the support of armed forces, Mr Otaiba said, adding that the UAE, as an important member of the international community, had an "obligation to play a positive role" in world affairs.

Mr Otaiba noted that the UAE had a history of participation in multinational security efforts, such as in Kosovo, Somalia and Kuwait, but added: "Certain areas have a particular priority to the UAE." Emirati national security would be directly affected should Afghanistan implode under the weight of conflict and failed reconstruction efforts, he said. Participants at The Hague yesterday emphasised the importance of viewing Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the same problem. Without such a strategy, he said reconstruction efforts would be futile.

"If we don't help Pakistan," he said, "then anything we do in Afghanistan will be wasted." As part of the US president Barack Obama's regional strategy for Afghanistan, Washington has backed off from requesting additional combat forces from its allies. Instead it is advocating an increased reconstruction role for the 41 other nations that make up the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force. "Just as the security of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked," Mr Otaiba said, "so too are security and humanitarian efforts."

According to the ambassador, the UAE has always pushed for a comprehensive, supra-regional strategy. The previous ambassador to the US and the current Minister of Labour, Saqr Ghobash, who was also attending the conference, said: "There can no be no vacuum in Afghanistan that would give al Qa'eda a safe haven." His statements echoed the policy outlined in the Government's white paper last summer: "Through its work in Afghanistan, the UAE seeks to extend the protections it offers its own citizens at home, in the area of national security."

Mr Ghobash said: "It was good to see that the world has acknowledged that Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of the same issue." Since the UAE has donated more than US$550 million (Dh2bn) in aid and reconstruction over the past five years, there is significant reason to be concerned about the sustainability and effectiveness of those investments. He said the goal of the conference should not be to highlight past contributions, but to reaffirm a commitment to Afghanistan's future. Arguing that more attention must be paid to efforts that would pave the way for long-term development of the country, he said: "Education is the real foundation for security and growth."

This belief is reflected in the focus of the UAE's contributions to Afghanistan's reconstruction. The Government has spent US$30m to build 11 schools that educate 300 students a day, a library and a university with a capacity for 6,400 students. Additionally, it has trained 30,000 teachers and supplied educational materials for 4.87 million students. The chairman of The Hague conference, Kai Eide, the UN's special representative to Afghanistan, said that up to now the "atmosphere of doom and gloom" had overshadowed any success. "This is not a time to hesitate," he said. "It is a time to stand firm in our commitments."