Ex-British envoy sees war as wrong focus in Afghanistan

From 2007 to 2010, Sherard Cowper-Coles served as Britain’s ambassador and special representative to Afghanistan, giving him an inside view of the struggle on the battlefield and in the corridors of power to stabilize the war-torn country.

Since retiring last year, the veteran diplomat has become an outspoken critic of British and U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Instead of pursuing a futile obsession with military supremacy, he says, the U.S. and its allies should lay down arms and concentrate on achieving a political deal, which means sitting across from the Taliban at the bargaining table, however distasteful that may seem.

Cowper-Coles, 56, has just published “Cables from Kabul,” a memoir of his years in Afghanistan. He spoke to the Times on Saturday at his home in West London.

Have both Britain and the U.S. accepted the need for a political settlement with the Taliban?


President Obama said it explicitly on the eve of his state visit to Britain, and [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton said it, although not quite explicitly, when she called for a political surge … in February of this year. In my view and the view of many others who follow Afghanistan, this is too late, or maybe too late, but better late than never.

Your book criticizes the U.S. in particular for employing tactics but no strategy in Afghanistan. Do you feel that’s still the case?

There’s a disjunction between the trebling in the number of Special Forces strikes, the amount of ordnance dropped from the air in Afghanistan over the past year since Gen. [Stanley A.] McChrystal left, and the secretary of State’s and the president’s call for a political surge.

Given that we all want our troops out of combat by 2015, we need to be stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing down the temperature, winding down the violence.... It’s a mistake to believe you can shoot or bomb your way to a stable political solution in Afghanistan.

You advocate bringing home troops to the U.S. and Britain at a faster pace. Wouldn’t that just encourage the Taliban and other actors not to negotiate?

Actually the reverse, because the Taliban’s … problem with us is the presence of foreign troops on their soil. What I’m advocating is not so much getting troops back to Britain or America as getting them out of combat. You can pull them back into bases across Afghanistan....

It’s a question of showing the Taliban you’re serious about wanting an honorable peace for all the internal parties to the Afghan conflict [and] also all the regional parties.... The Taliban know that they’re not going to win total victory; they know they’re never again going to rule the whole of Afghanistan.

Are there credible interlocutors among the Taliban who would make negotiations worthwhile, on a national basis?


We have to create those interlocutors.... We do that by doing what Ambassador Mark Grossman, Richard Holbrooke’s successor, is doing, which is marching determinedly through the foothills [in search of people to talk to].

As well as pull, we need push. We need Pakistan on [board], pushing them to negotiate.... But we need also to include India, China, Russia, Iran. All of them need to be dealt into this to avoid the Great Game, Round 3....

This is about much more than talking to the Taliban. It’s about talking to all the parties to a multi-decade, multidimensional, multi-player conflict.... The conflict goes back way beyond our arrival in Afghanistan, even beyond the arrival of the Soviet 40th Army in December 1979. It’s a much deeper conflict about the nature of the Afghan polity, between Islam and secularism, modernism and traditionalism, town and country, Tajik and Uzbek.

Talking to the Taliban is an idea that’s been around for several years but hasn’t succeeded. What makes it any different now?


What has been missing until now is unambiguous American commitment to negotiating. America often finds it difficult to talk to its enemies, but that’s how insurgencies end....

President Obama recognized that from the beginning, but because of the pressures from the American military and others, it’s taken him two years to get round to actually turning those words into real action.

Is training of the Afghan army and police to take over security actually working?

Not really. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s beside the point. It’s based on the mistaken view that you’re going to pacify these areas by transferring responsibility for garrisoning them from the 101st Airborne to the 205 Hero Corps of the Afghan National Army.... That is not the way to stabilize the areas, by garrisoning them with soldiers and police.


These great tribal areas with a long tradition of violent resistance to outsiders will be stabilized and pacified only if they’re empowered to do it themselves, subject to reasonable checks and balances.

You write that “Americans are just too democratic, and too nice, to be very good at ruling other people.” Do you think the U.S. should take a stronger line in Afghanistan?

No, not in general. But there has to be a willingness to set conditions which people have to observe, reasonable conditions reached through negotiation and agreement, and when they breach those conditions you have to be prepared to punish them....

The world’s greatest democracy is, in many ways to its credit, unsuited to this kind of quasi-imperial expeditionary activity. It’s not that America is a malign empire; it’s a benign empire. But it needs to recognize that this is imperialism; it is taking over somebody else’s country, running it on their behalf in order to prepare it for independence, for self-government. And to do that, one needs to behave in certain ways which don’t perhaps go with America’s image of itself.


With just three years to go before most U.S. and British troops are supposed to be out of Afghanistan, is it too late?

No, I hope not.... It requires Mrs. Clinton above all to do what Henry Kissinger did and what secretaries of State do, which is negotiate, get people in a room, sit them round a table and keep them there until agreement is reached. If that comes from the top, and Ambassador Grossman’s efforts come from the bottom, then we do have a chance of stabilizing it before our troops finally come out of combat.

But it’s going to be, as the Duke of Wellington said at the battle of Waterloo, a damn close-run thing. We are essentially having to run a marathon in the time allocated for a 10,000-meter sprint.

In your book you have few unkind words for anyone. Is that the diplomat in you?


Yes. I don’t name names of people I have a low opinion of. But the whole thing left me with an appalling sense of sadness and tragedy and, above all, the sense that otherwise intelligent people were living one big, bright shining lie.

We all knew that we weren’t really making progress, or if we were, it was local and tactical. We all knew, deep down, that things weren’t really getting better in a sustainable way. And yet we all kept the pretense going....

Time and again we were the victim of wishful thinking and pious intentions which weren’t grounded in the reality of Afghanistan or the reality of the nature of the American republic.

Do you think there are important disagreements right now between the U.S. and Britain on Afghanistan?


Our political leaders are aligned. I know David Cameron very much agrees with President Obama; they’re very much on the same wavelength.

We both of us have a problem in providing firm, clear political direction to our very large and confident military machines. One of the things I found occasionally disturbing was the way that our militaries would work together to agree on policies or practices before they had consulted their political masters in either country.

As the French [leader Georges] Clemenceau said, war is too important to be left to the military. The last 10 years have shown that Afghanistan is far too important and complicated to be left to military machines, who, however many PhDs they may have from Princeton, do not really think politically and are not really political animals.

And in the end, the problem of Afghanistan is not a security problem; it’s a political problem.