14 Oct 2011

Afghanistan – rose-tinted specs come off at last

The most senior British diplomat working on Afghanistan has given the most damning assessment of the UK’s record in the country that I have heard from a serving official. Jonathan Rugman reports.

The most senior British diplomat working on Afghanistan has given the most damning assessment of the UK’s record in the country that I have heard from a serving official.

His name is Mark Sedwill. He is Prime Minister David Cameron’s special envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his remarks were given to a think tank called the Global Strategy Forum  this week. At least two former British foreign secretaries were in the audience. I wondered if they were as gobsmacked by this outspoken civil servant as I was.

Sedwill talked about “arguably the most serious mistake” – excluding the Taliban from the first Afghan peace conference in Bonn a decade ago. “We imposed a victor’s peace,” he said. “That exclusion wasn’t apparent to us at the time.”

Then there was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sedwill said the Foreign Office had hoped the Americans would “lay off Iraq” after the September 11th attacks. Instead, the response to 9/11 in Afghanistan was compromised. “All the talent was moved to Iraq…in the run up to 2003,” Mr Sedwill explained.

He said the ultimate goal of the UK’s strategy was creating a viable  Afghan state but, in what sounded like another swipe at the Tony Blair administration he served, he said that “some of the earlier heady ambitions…continue to be the job of decades.”

And his response to the second plank of the UK strategy, which is building up Afghan security forces so coalition forces can go home? “We have only been doing that properly for two years…not for a long time did we resource our ambitions properly,” Sedwill said.

2009 was a particularly difficult year : “I was writing 3 or 4 letters a day to the parents and families of [dead] soldiers”.   And when the “unseemly row between the military and political leadership” over resourcing British troops broke into the open during the Brown government , “public support just evaporated.”

Civil servants normally don’t say things like this. Then this admission that journalists had been closer to the truth than politicians and their spin doctors: “political leaders around the [NATO] alliance had been seeking to accentuate the positive…when all the journalists knew the situation was deteriorating.”

2010 was much better, he said, with the Obama “surge” and the military initiative regained, yet in almost the next breath he admitted that the Taliban insurgency might calm down when foreign troops leave. “We are a motivating factor for the insurgents,” he said. Well yes, but that has been true for years, and only now that troops are leaving is it being said openly.

In the meantime the enemy has either changed address or, in British MP speak, claimed its second home as its primary residence.. “Our long term risk is exposure to Pakistan,” Mr Sedwill said. A major part of his job is to persuade elements of the Pakistani state not to support elements of the Taliban. “Our policy is to engage and engage with Pakistan” he said. The main thrust of this engagement appears to be convincing  Islamabad that we are not leaving Afghanistan in the lurch, so that Pakistan should not broker its own deals with the Taliban. So far it doesn’t seem to be working.

“We have not communicated that long-term commitment sufficiently,” Mr Sedwill complains.

And how many British Prime Ministers will  keep inherited pledges to far off Afghanistan anyway? The UK’s combat troops have a “firm commitment” to leave in 2014, come what may, presumably leaving it to Special Forces and US drones to carry on the counter terrorism work.  Mr Sedwill admits that “the appetite within NATO countries to deal with the problem at source has eroded.”

As for a peace deal with the Taliban, well he doubted we will get that by 2014 but hoped a peace process robust enough to survive is at least in train by then. Mr Sedwill claimed the momentum of the insurgency had been reversed and that talks with the Taliban were “at a very, very delicate stage” ;  yet with Taliban elements attacking Kabul and assassinating Afghan politicians, with the Karzai regime associated with corruption, and with the Haqqani network doing its terrible worst, are the fighters really on the backfoot?

Sedwill said there had been a spike in infiltrations from the tribal areas of Pakistan, and as I’ve written in a previous blog, the Taliban can’t be “cornered” because there is no corner, just as there is no single Taliban entity. Perhaps only when the penny drops that the Taliban will never, ever retake Kabul –  surely the last redoubt of Afghan, British and American Special Forces –  can serious negotiations really begin.

The bottom line is that there is a significant risk of Afghanistan unravelling into civil war, with Pakistan “going rogue” and providing a haven for the Taliban for years. And we now know from Mr Sedwill how the UK is laying the public groundwork for the withdrawal of thousands of British troops from Afghanistan; by downplaying expectations of what can be achieved there. The rose-tinted spectacles have come off at last. A public enquiry into what went wrong will surely be called for.