One View of the Afghanistan Endgame

What will it look like a year from now in Afghanistan? How about three to five years out? There is much speculation and many forecasts so I wanted to offer one view that I recently came across.

Sir Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO is a British diplomat who, since 2009, has served as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He provides a glimpse of one potential future that assumes pivotal events take place this year. While I believe his prediction is well-grounded and certainly compelling, it may be unrealistic to expect such dramatic changes to occur over the next few years. However, there are a number of ongoing initiatives that are chipping away at the many problems in Afghanistan – perhaps we’ll see a “tipping point” reached this year that becomes a real catalyst for positive change and a lasting future peace.

“Afghanistan: The Shape of Success”
Edited transcript of a lecture given by Sherard Cowper-Coles at King’s College, London, given the 3rd of March 2010

What I want to do is to speak on a personal basis, and it must be on a personal basis, under the Chatham House Rule (and for those of you who are working journalists, I do ask you to respect that), to give you a really frank account of how I think we can, and should, and, with luck, will succeed in Afghanistan, and to paint a picture of what success might look like.

Now what I want to do is to set out is where we want to get to over the next three years, how we might get there, and the routes we should not take in order to get there.

I want to imagine that, instead of being here on 3rd March 2010, we are meeting on 3rd March (or thereabouts) 2013. President Obama has just been re-elected. He has given his fourth State of the Union Address, and he has been re-elected partly on a record of somewhat surprising success in Afghanistan. He has managed to start bringing the troops home as he promised he would.

The Vision

In March 2013 we have a British Prime Minister, Gordon Cameron, who is benefitting from the post-Olympics buzz, from the 2012 Olympics when Britain got a vast haul of medals, but he has resisted the temptation – to which Harold Wilson succumbed in 1966 – of going to the country on the basis of sporting success. Nevertheless we have a Prime Minister who is proud of the way Britain is not only succeeding in Afghanistan, but that the ideas that Britain put forward at and in the run-up to the London Conference all those years ago in 2010 have been applied so enthusiastically by the Obama Administration, particularly after the 2010 US mid-term elections.

In Kabul we have President Karzai, now comfortably in the second half of his final term, but the political configuration in Afghanistan is rather different. President Karzai is very much the elected French-style monarch of his country, the father of his country and he is working with a Tajik Prime Minister who is appointed by the President, but endorsed by the Parliament. Sitting in the Parliament in Kabul, there are now not political parties, but a series of blocs, including a southern religious conservative Pashtun bloc in which a number of former Talibs are sitting in the Parliament.

But the configuration has changed in other ways in Kabul because power, as well as being redistributed between President and Parliament, has been re-distributed between Kabul and the provinces and districts.

Back in 2010 in the wake of the London Conference, people, wise men realised that it was not sensible for Afghanistan to have a constitution which mandated at least 14 and maybe 17 national elections in each of the next 20 years, so some sort of constitutional re-engineering was thought desirable. And the great Loya Jirga, which President Karzai convened three years ago in the spring of 2010, started that process of finding a new Afghan political settlement, a political settlement which recognised that the Bonn Settlement of 2001, 12 years ago, was flawed in one important respect. It was a victors’ peace. The vanquished had been invited to the Petersburg in a half-hearted sort of way but they did not turn up and the resulting peace was one in which the southern conservative religious Pashtuns, particularly of the excluded tribes like the Ishaqzai, felt they had no part. That was changed by the political process that was launched at the Jirga in 2010. As Mrs Merkel had once remarked, until the great Jirga of 2010, we had been trying to govern Afghanistan as though we were trying to govern Germany without Bavaria. The southern religious conservatives needed to be brought into the political settlement.

Of course, the insurgency has not died away completely. In the hinterlands of the provinces of the central belt, in the uplands around and beyond Musa Qala, there is still much violence. A lot of it is drug-related, some of it gang warfare, some of it what has become known (among the British Army at least) as activity by the Real Taliban.

These neo-Taliban, back in power in some parts of the south, rather like New Labour, had lived up to their promises in 2010 of accepting that they had made mistakes the first time round. Excluding women from schools had been a mistake. Banning people from watching television or listening to music had not only been a mistake, but quite impossible to enforce. And in theory now, men were required to grow only a one inch beard and not a six inch beard, although even that rule was widely flouted. The Taliban were not in power in any formal sense, but on many of the elected councils of the south there were recognisable former Taliban elements, a sort of Taliban Sinn Fein.

But the real change had been a change which Lord Curzon had recommended on the North-West Frontier more than 150 years ago. Instead of trying to govern these tribal areas by garrisoning them with men in uniform in forts (these days they were called Forward Operating Bases or Combat Outposts, but they were really just forts) and instead of trying to garrison these tribal areas with the 82nd Airborne Division or the 3rd Battalion The Rifles or the 205th Hero Corps of the Afghan National Army, a different form of securing these areas had been adopted in the wake of a study by General McChrystal, who, after steering the Afghan campaign to success, was now a Professor of Military Science back at New York University.

McChrystal had decided, following an interview he had given to the Financial Times in January 2010, that there had been enough fighting in Afghanistan, that the way through was to empower rural communities, tribal communities, to secure and govern themselves in the way that the British had done on the North West Frontier by giving the uluswals, the District Chiefs, bags of gold if they created representative shuras to do development and to do dispute resolution. He had also decided to start experimenting with an Afghan Army in which individual units had clear local affiliations, rather like the old Indian Army, or even the British Army. President Karzai had just attended the passing out parade in Kandahar of the 1st Bn, the Afghan National Helmandi Scouts.

On the civil side, there was less talk of judges and prisons and custodial sentences, and more of dispute resolution of civil and criminal disputes and, most controversially, a decision to set up a sort of armed home guard, an armed neighbourhood watch in many of these tribal areas which had created antibodies to the Taliban when they came over the hill. Everyone knew that these tribal security forces consisted in large part of former Talibs, but everyone knew that three years earlier in 2007, the British had had some success in bringing over large numbers of fighters in the Helmand Valley, only to have the experiment overturned by President Karzai, who felt that he had not been properly consulted.

So it was known that this had worked, and it was working. Not completely. There were incidents which everyone regretted, but the devolution of power away from Kabul down to the provinces, down to the districts, the establishment of forms of government that went with the grain of Afghan tribal society had brought the temperature of the insurgency right down, and had enabled President Obama to fulfil his promise to start bringing the troops home.

But looking beyond Afghanistan, something else had changed. Once a month in Kabul, the Council for Regional Stability met. Afghanistan chaired a meeting with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General. Based in Kabul, but working the region, alongside Ambassador Richard Holbrooke of the United States, the UN SRSG had brought together not only the immediate neighbours, most prominent among them Pakistan, but Iran as well, the ‘Stans to the north, and also India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis. And sitting on this council there were a number of observers – the United Kingdom, the United States, NATO, the European Union and of course, a strong United Nations contingent, brokering this process.

But the thing that had really changed was that the ISI had decided back in the spring of 2010 that they might actually get what they wished for, that President Obama might withdraw the troops, and they would be faced with chaos in Afghanistan. So the reports that initially came through, that some of the senior officers in the ISI were asking themselves whether the Pakistanis should not work with the Americans in helping promote a political settlement in Afghanistan, had turned out to be true, because the Americans in turn had acknowledged that Pakistan had a legitimate stake in Afghanistan and that Pakistan was entitled to expect that its southern and eastern Pashtun conservative clients had a right to be represented in the political settlement.

India was there too, so was Iran. The tendency of some in the Iranian intelligence services to support the Taliban had been suppressed. The Iranian Foreign Ministry had prevailed, and Iran’s traditional hostility to the Sunni extremists of Afghanistan had once again come to dominate its policy.

On the economic side, the Chinese were pressing ahead, building the great railway north to Uzbekistan, with a branch line back up to the Khyber and in across to the subcontinent. And there was a great celebration in the autumn of 2011, when the first Afghan truck, laden with pomegranates, had driven all the way from Kandahar to Delhi via Lahore without having to have its contents offloaded and repacked and put onto an Indian or a Pakistani truck. The great highways of South West Asia were beginning, once again, to open up.

How to Get There

So that is a vision of what might happen, what could happen. Now I want to sketch out how we could get there, and the short answer is that it is all the politics. It is all about politics, it is all about an internal Afghan political process to repair and restore the Afghan political settlement, to bring the excluded tribes, the excluded groups, back into politics, back into the economy, back into the provision of security for a country in which they have a stake. That process would have to be Afghan-led, but facilitated by the international community, with the United Nations and United States, represented by Ambassador Eikenberry, discreetly in the lead.

But it is also about an interlocking regional process in which Pakistan, India above all, but also Iran, Russia, China with its vast investments ($3½ billion worth in the Aynak copper mine) all come to realise that all ships float on a rising tide of Afghan security and prosperity. And through muscular American diplomacy, led by Ambassador Holbrooke, backed up by the UN, in the course of 2010, all those regional players came to realise that Obama was serious about withdrawing American troops and that therefore they needed to work with the Americans to put in place a settlement. Otherwise Afghanistan would lapse back into chaos, and the international community would get out, only to have to get back in again later.

With hindsight, writing in the Sunday Times I think, at the New Year of 2013, Sir Simon Jenkins recognised that he had been wrong all along, that actually the process which had been launched at the London Conference had been the right thing to do. And with hindsight, although some cynics said that the motives which had led the Prime Minister Brown and Chancellor Merkel to call for a conference in the spring of 2010 had been partly to do with shoring up domestic support for the venture, it was clear that it had been right to bring the international community together in London and then again in Kabul, to give a political impetus going into the fighting season of 2010 to these two interlocking political processes.

As I said, the London Conference had been followed by a great gathering of Afghans from all over the country in Kabul in the spring of 2010 and that in turn by a Kabul Conference at which President Karzai and his impressive team of Ministers had mapped out in detail how they planned to implement some of the ideas which had been ventilated in London – a process for transitioning security to Afghan forces, a plan to create a national organisation for reconciliation and reintegration, supported by a great international fund, a regional process, massive investment in governance at provincial and district level, and a new IMF programme which recognised the achievements which the Afghan economy had been making, with a 17% rise in its tax take back in 2010.

Even the Afghan parliamentary elections, which had been postponed till the autumn of 2010, had proved to be the first step towards a new process of political reconciliation. They had been very much Afghan-style elections, with the usual stories of intimidation and fraud, but there had been some encouraging signs, particularly in the south, of more conservative elements being willing to stand for Parliament and to re-enter the political settlement. The new Parliament in Kabul when it convened after Ramazan in the autumn of 2010 looked much more representative than its predecessor. Many of the old northern warlords had gone, and the ethnic balance of the country, 42% Pashtun by the most recent census which dated back to 1979 (but there were plans for a new census under way), suggested that the new parliament was indeed more representative than its predecessor.

But the thing which really had turned the tide – and Sir Simon had been good enough to acknowledge this in his article – had been that the Taliban had become convinced that they could not win, just as Martin McGuinness had said that what had turned the tide in Northern Ireland had been the recognition by the Provisional IRA that they could carry on fighting almost indefinitely, but they could not win.

So, in the wake of the London and Kabul conferences and the great Peace Jirga, the Taliban, particularly some of the more moderate members of the Quetta Shura, had become convinced that Mullah Omar was wrong, that they were not going to prevail, that NATO was serious about the 40,000 troops, that Presidents Obama and Karzai were serious about offering an honourable peace to those who accepted the Afghan constitution and had no link with Al Qaeda. So, in a way, the Americans, rather like de Gaulle in Algeria, had signalled right with 40,000 troops but had in fact turned left by adopting a political strategy, on the lines advocated by Ambassadors Holbrooke and Eikenberry, with these interlocking processes of internal and regional politics.

Along with the Taliban becoming convinced that they could not win, so too the ISI, as I mentioned, had become convinced that Pakistan’s interests lay not in trying to continue to fuel the insurgency, but in using their contacts with the Taliban, to broker a political settlement. And the Americans wisely, initially through the CIA, but then through their contacts with the State Department, had signalled to the Pakistanis that they were no longer expecting the Pakistanis to break off all links with the Afghan Taliban, recognising that those historic connections which spanned the tribal lands on both side of the Durand Line were part of the DNA of the ISI, and no one in Washington was so unrealistic as to expect there to be a total break.

But following Obama’s historic letter to President Zardari in the fall of 2010, the Americans did expect Pakistan to work with them in delivering this. America had realised, as many in Pakistan had realised, that Manmohan Singh was the subcontinent’s best hope for peace between India and Pakistan, a statesman running for history, not for re-election, someone who was determined to leave a more peaceful legacy for the peoples of the sub-continent. And America, in the quietest possible way, had helped that process, initially by insisting on real Pakistani action against those responsible for the Mumbai atrocity.

Turning to Helmand, Britain was recognised to have done an extremely good job as part of a coalition, but there was less national competition in Helmand and the south, as ISAF forces focused on training the Afghans to protect the key highways and centres of population in the south and east. It was rumoured that ISAF Special Forces were still operating in Afghanistan in a combat role, and somebody’s aunt in Poole had met someone who was sure that her nephew in the SBS was still operating there as well, but the Pentagon and MOD spokesmen had refused to confirm or deny the presence of Special Forces in Afghanistan.

So that is how we might get there, how I believe we could get there, and what the picture could look like.

What Not To Do

Now there are a number of courses we should not follow.

One is the pull out, pull back, option recommended by, among others, Rory Stewart. By early 2013 he too had moderated his views, and had realised that pulling back unconditionally and unilaterally was not practical politics either for the American President or the British Prime Minister.

Those in Washington, or elsewhere, who had advocated spending more rather than less, had been suppressed, simply because of budgetary pressures. The wild men who had advocated pushing on farther and faster into the bad lands of Farah and Nimruz, had also been brought under control. So the ‘spend more’, the ‘spread wider’ and the ‘pull back’ schools had all been shown that theirs was not the right way.

And looking back, the historians saw that what had been done by President Obama, by General McChrystal, and, even more important, by Ambassadors Holbrooke and Eikenberry, had been to help the Afghan authorities get the Kalashnikovs in many Afghan households pointing outwards at the Taliban. What had been done was to give Pashtun communities who did not like the Taliban (poll after poll had shown support for the Taliban was well under 10%) the confidence to create political and security antibodies to the Taliban. To empower communities broken by ten years of communism, and ten years of civil war, and to give those communities the confidence to secure and govern themselves.

Now over 150 years ago, Queen Victoria wrote to her favourite Prime Minister that, after Lady Burdett-Coutts’s scandalous elopement with a man less than half her age, the thing that worried Her Majesty most was Afghanistan. I do not think I am breaking any secrets if I say that, before I went as Her present Majesty’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, our current monarch said something similar to me. But I hope that in the talk I have given you this evening, I have shown you why Her Majesty need not be worried.

About Bob

Husband, father, educator and a career active Army officer with over 27 years of service. Professional focus is military and national security, however, I am not a spokesman for the Department of Defense or the Army. All posts reflect my own personal thoughts and opinions or those of my guests. I look forward to any comments. Thanks!
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