The UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 89-114)

  Q89 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is an evidence-taking session in our process of producing a report on policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our main witness for the first part of today's sitting is Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who retired from the Foreign Office at the end of October. He was our Ambassador in Kabul from May 2007 to February 2009, and the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative from February 2009 to September 2010.

  Sir Sherard, thank you very much for coming along. You are very welcome. Is there anything you would like to say at the start, or shall we go straight into questions?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Perhaps I could make a couple of comments.

  First, thank you for inviting me; as a former official, I am very flattered to be asked. I know and have met many of the members of the Committee in my professional career as a diplomat. That includes the former Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth, who is with us today, and the hon. Member for Penrith and the Border, Rory Stewart—we worked together in Kabul on a number of projects, and we were there as recently as March.

  I particularly welcome your inquiry because, with the mid-term elections in the United States behind us, we have a major American review of policy coming up next month. If I may say so, I think that the Committee's inquiry is very timely, because the central lesson that I took away from my three and a half years working in and on Afghanistan is that it is a political problem that needs political treatment and a political process. It is a political and a regional problem, and it is time for the politicians to take charge of the project, as I believe the new coalition Government is doing. That is another reason why the interest of this Committee is so important and so timely.

  Q90 Chair: Thank you. That was a very helpful kick-off. Following on from that, do you think that the present Government have the right strategy in their approach to Afghanistan?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Yes, I do. I was lucky enough to be present at a seminar at Chequers that the Prime Minister convened on 1 June. It was very much in the style of the seminars that Mrs Thatcher used to convene at crucial points in policy making. Outsiders, including Rory Stewart, were at an opening session; and then officials and Ministers were together, drawing conclusions for policy.

  I do not think that I am breaking any secrets if I say that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign and Defence Secretaries and other Ministers present, drew what I believe is the right conclusion—that this needs a political approach. But at the same time, we need to show unstinting support for our military effort, and it is particularly timely two days before 11 November that we pay tribute to what our troops are doing. However, military effort by itself is not enough. It is not grand strategy. As General David Richards would be the first to acknowledge—and, indeed, General Petraeus—the military campaign is about suppressing locally and temporarily the symptoms of a very serious disease, which is affecting the whole of the Afghan polity, not just the Pashtun areas in the south and east, or the Pashtun pockets in the north.

  Afghanistan needs a new political and regional settlement, which cannot be delivered by military force. Military force can contribute—there is no military solution but, equally, there is no non-military solution. Military force plays a part but, in my view and my experience, it should and must be a subsidiary part. That is why politicians like you—like this Committee—need to develop and encourage the vision of a political approach to solving the underlying tensions that are giving rise to the violence.

  Q91 Chair: When you say that it is time for the politicians to take charge, there is a slight inference that they are not currently in charge. Could you elaborate on that point?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: If I may be pedantic, it is your inference, Mr Chairman, not my implication.

  My message really is that we have got, on both sides of the Atlantic, extremely capable and enthusiastic, unquenchably optimistic and fiercely loyal—to their institutions and countries—military machines, which have naturally adopted a can-do attitude and driven forward. This has distorted the understanding of the problem, because the real problem is much deeper. It is a problem to do with the fact that the peace that was negotiated at Petersberg outside Bonn in December 2001 was a victors' peace—the vanquished were not present. The constitution, which we are fighting, dying and spending getting on for £6 billion of taxpayers' money a year to support, is unstable, because it is highly centralised—I am glad to say that it was designed by a Frenchman and imposed by an American. But it is not sustainable, because it does not go with the grain of Afghan tradition. We need something much more decentralised.

  In the end, what will bring security to the Pashtun areas and, indeed, to the whole region will be the solution that Lord Curzon adopted as Viceroy on the north-west frontier. He pulled our troops back east of the Indus and decided, rightly, that the policy for pacifying or stabilising—I hesitate to say pacifying—the Pathan tribal areas was one of empowering the tribal leaders, under the supervision of the Government, to secure and govern those areas for themselves, with a representative shura of local tribes, punishing them if they misbehaved and rewarding them with bags of gold if they succeeded. The modern-day equivalent of the Curzon formula has to be the right approach. Garrisoning these areas with alien troops might produce temporary suppression of the symptoms, but it won't cure the underlying disease.

  I know that General Richards and General Petraeus understand that. What has been missing is the political strategy which, if I may say so, can sound a bit like Liberal Democrat community politics—

  Sir Menzies Campbell: There is nothing wrong with that.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: It has got to be top down and bottom up—easy to say, difficult to do, but no other solution will work. We need to remember that the Afghan army, which is only 3% southern Pashtun, is almost as alien to the farmers of the Helmand valley as the 3rd Battalion The Rifles or the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States army.

  Chair: I think some of my colleagues will come back to you later on that.

  Q92 Mr Roy: Sir Sherard, may I take you to our relations with the United States and our influence, whatever that might be? You insist that Britain should support the United States and are quoted as saying, "We should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one". What is the reality in relation to the influence that we can bring to bear on United States thinking on both Afghanistan and Pakistan?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Well, that quotation you attribute to me I think comes from a French diplomatic cable which was the result of a lunch with my deputy in Kabul, but the author bigged it up in order to impress people in Paris. It is not something that I ever recall saying.

  The central point, if I may say so, is more important than anything else. Only the United States can succeed in this venture. America is necessary, but not enough for a solution. One of our chief roles, and one of the chief benefits of our massive contribution, is the influence that it gives us with the American military and in Washington. I would like to go into that more during the private session. David Miliband and I worked extremely hard over 15 months to proselytise for a political solution and process, with some success. My friend, colleague and sometimes sparring partner, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, gets Afghanistan in the way that few other American policy makers do. He is a highly intelligent man, who understands from his days as a foreign service officer in south Vietnam about the nature of insurgency and the need for a political solution to the problems. However, the problem often lies elsewhere in Washington. Sometimes, if the only or main tool in the toolbox is a hammer, every problem can look like a nail. I know that the Prime Minister understands that. We need to give an American Administration the courage and the cover to start on a political process.

  In February 1963, after the United States army and marine corps had won a great victory over the Viet Cong and the north Vietnamese army, the dean of American broadcasters, the David Dimbleby of the time, spoke to the American people on CBS evening news on 23 February. He said, "The best we can hope for is a military stalemate. We need a negotiated solution; an honourable and political way out for an honourable people that have done their best".

  It is about encouraging all the good instincts of the Obama Administration, as set out in the Bob Woodward book. Britain is uniquely well placed to do that and Ambassador Holbrooke is one of those who really understands that. If I may say so, General McChrystal also understood it and General Petraeus understands it. Moving America in that direction, when many Americans think that the Taliban were somehow directly responsible for 9/11—they were indirectly, but they were actually horrified immediately after the event at the way their hospitality had been abused—is difficult in American politics. Britain can help do that.

  Q93 Mr Roy: Are we major or minor?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: We are major. We are very much premier league and everyone else is sort of champions league.

  Q94 Mr Roy: Everyone else?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Yes, everyone else in terms of contribution, influence and access, intelligence, military and diplomatic matters. A member of my staff was in Holbrooke's office and we had a member of Holbrooke's team in my office in London. We are major league, but if you read the Woodward book, you see that most of it is inside baseball between the players in Washington and on the ground. Perhaps we could go into more of that in the private session.

  Q95 Mr Baron: Sir Sherard, may I turn to your thoughts about the very public announcement that the Government plan to withdraw troops by 2015 as an outer deadline? For some, that presented a bit of a mixed message. One moment we are focusing on conditions—and achieving those conditions—for a full withdrawal, and the next we are setting a deadline. The two things do not sit easily next to each other. Critics would point to the fact that that could be exploited by the Taliban to convey the impression that they are on the road to victory so there is no need to negotiate. It may encourage the Afghan people to just sit on the fence and wait it out. What are your views? Were the Government right?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: I support the idea of deadlines. I didn't initially when I first arrived there, but the Taliban can read the politics of the western troop-contributing democracies as well as anybody. They are perfectly aware that American troops are due to start leaving in July next year and that the next British general election, all being well, will be in May 2015. The Prime Minister has said that our troops will be out of combat, not out of Afghanistan. I have always thought that a long-term definition of success in Afghanistan will be, "Are troops out of combat?" We won't be seeing Helmand and the tribal areas garrisoned by anyone very much—perhaps the towns and the roads—but we will have a long-term British military training mission in Afghanistan, and DFID needs to be in Afghanistan for 50 years. I think a deadline helps show the Taliban something that President Obama very wisely said in one of his early interviews. Contrary to what some of the neo-cons had said, President Obama told The New York Times, I believe, a month or so after he took office that America sought no long-term, permanent presence in Afghanistan.

  Of course, most Afghans believe that we and America are there to seek some long-term military presence, some kind of neo-colonial, long-term hegemony over the area. They don't believe that rationally—many people in Helmand believe that we are there to avenge the battle of Maiwand—but they do believe it, so announcing that we are going, that we are getting out of combat, is a good thing, in my view. It was a courageous thing for the Prime Minister to do, and the right thing.

  Q96 Mr Baron: Do you not accept, though, that there is a danger in sending mixed messages? We seem to be saying that we will leave in 2015 whether we have achieved our objectives or not. That can be a dangerous message to send out.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: It is a risk, and it needs to be accompanied with a vigorous political process and strategy. As with strikes by our special forces, you need to strike with one hand and offer a political process with the other. In Northern Ireland, every armoured vehicle had on the side an 0800 number for people to use to signal that they were wanting to come over. In my view, the tragedy of NATO policy in Afghanistan is that we have had far too much of the right hand and not enough of the left hand. You need both: you need the political process to harvest politically the success that the military is delivering.

  Q97 Mr Ainsworth: Sir Sherard, 2015 is not far away. You spoke about the lack of understanding in large parts of America about the limitations of the military alone to achieve anything in Afghanistan, but we have invested an awful lot of blood and treasure in Afghanistan, particularly since 2006. Looking forward, what do you think is likely to happen when we leave and the Afghan operation is over?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: If we were to leave precipitately, there would be chaos. There would be civil war and a battle across the south between the Taliban and the narco-mafia, broadly defined. We have not really succeeded in building a durable causeway of good governance between the narco-mafia on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. What many southern Afghans want to know is who will be in charge of their village or valley five months or five years from now, and they will back the winner. For many of them, the Taliban are harsher but fairer than a predatory narco-mafia/Afghan Government.

  I strongly oppose too precipitate a withdrawal of troops, which would do great dishonour to the sacrifice of our troops, and undo, or threaten, everything that has been achieved for the people of Afghanistan. I am glad to see that some of the members of the Troops Out Movement, with whom I have debated in the past, have adopted a more nuanced approach to this recently, and that is a very good thing.

  The key question—this was Mr Baron's question—is how you accompany a military draw-down with a serious political process. The analogy that I have used—I thought of it a few weeks ago—is of a double-decker bus. You need an American chassis, an American engine, an American driver and an American sat-nav system. The passengers on the lower deck of the bus will be the internal parties. This is about far more than just talking to the Taliban; the Tajiks are increasingly alienated. On the top deck of the bus, you have all the external parties. The largest passenger will be Pakistan, but India, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the emirates and the lower tier of the -stans will all be there. The bus will be painted in Afghan colours and have a UN conductor on each floor and, with luck, a British back-seat driver.

  The only question, I think, is not whether there's a negotiated withdrawal; there will be a negotiated end to this conflict, as to all conflicts. The question is, do we get ahead of the tide of history? Do we have the confidence and courage to say, "Look, this needs a comprehensive negotiated solution, regionally and internally", or do we say, "We don't want to get involved. We'll subcontract it to the Afghans and the Pakistanis"? In the end, we want what the Taliban want, which is the withdrawal of foreign forces. The conversation is about the conditions accompanying those foreign forces.

  If we want to protect what has been achieved, we will do it best, in my view—and, if I may say so, in the view of your former colleague, David Miliband, in his article as Foreign Secretary in The New York Review of Books, and, I believe, of the present Minister as well—by having the confidence to take the initiative ourselves rather than saying, "After you, Claude", and letting it drift on.

  Q98 Mr Ainsworth: Forgive me, but what is precipitate? You've just told John Baron that 2015 was a good idea, with no conditions base. That is about four years away now, yet you're saying that precipitate withdrawal would be a disaster. What is precipitate?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Precipitate is starting to withdraw next month or next year. It is pulling back significant numbers of troops and just evacuating areas and letting chaos reign. Nothing that has been achieved will be preserved or sustained unless it's accompanied by a political settlement. Even the Afghan army at its very best and the Afghan national security forces are not going to be able to hold these areas absent a political settlement.

  Q99 Rory Stewart: Sherard, you said very clearly that you and the former Foreign Secretary were pushing very hard for a political solution. I think the sense, to follow on from the Chairman, is that you felt you didn't make as much progress as you would have liked. You've been very diplomatic about the military and their position, but there's certainly a sense that what the MOD was pursuing was slightly at odds with that political solution. As the Foreign Affairs Committee, we're here to look at the relationship between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. Do you have some practical suggestions or thoughts—going forward, not backward—on how one could get the relationship a little bit better in terms of how soldiers relate to political priorities?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Well, that, my lord, is what is called a leading question. I do have a number of practical suggestions; perhaps we can go into more detail in the private session.

  I think it is a question of politicians and civilian officials having the confidence to question some of the very optimistic military advice they get. I'm not in any way blaming the military—you couldn't have a serious military unless they were incurably optimistic—but I saw in my three and a half years papers that went to Ministers that were misleadingly optimistic. Officials and Ministers who questioned them were accused of being defeatist or disloyal in some way.

  One of the most moving experiences for me as Ambassador was in Helmand, when a young and very courageous officer in the Grenadier Guards came up to me and said he'd been at school with one of my sons. He said, "Can I have a private word with you, Sir? The strategy isn't working, but whenever I try to report that up the line, my superiors say I'm being defeatist and I must re-work my papers, because cracking on in Helmand is what it's about and success is coming". We have had success in Helmand and we are getting better, but it's tactics without grand strategy and without a political approach. It is suppressing locally and temporarily the symptoms of the disease. It is not curing the disease.

  Q100 Rory Stewart: Just following on from that, if we are to get ourselves, by 2015, to a situation in which we have ceased combat operations and are training and doing special forces, how are we, as the British Government, going to get the British Army in a position to be ready for 2015? Many senior generals are still saying, "It's got to be conditions-based. This is a fungible deadline. We've got to stick with Petraeus all the way". So what practically does one do to get us from where we are to where we want to be in 2015, in terms of the military?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: It's not a question of Britain doing it alone. There's a great conceit, really. I remember that when I first started as Ambassador there was a stack of papers headed "The United Kingdom strategy for Afghanistan" and "The United Kingdom strategy for Helmand". The reality is that the United Kingdom cannot and should not have an independent strategy for Helmand or for Afghanistan. This is part of a collective effort.

  We still deceive ourselves in thinking that we can somehow operate independently, but we can have a major influence on collective strategy, above all through our relationship with the United States. It is very much about the civilian side of the US Administration, the US Embassy, the State Department, the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency all making the kind of input that is necessary for an orchestrated de-escalation of military operations and a move towards the kind of new, negotiated, fair, political settlement that includes all parties to this multi-decade, multidimensional, multifaceted conflict. That is terribly easy to say in a Committee Room in the House of Commons, but difficult to deliver on the ground. But the truth is that the Afghans know how to do it. The system is called jirga—in Arabic it's called shura. It is about sitting together and thrashing out your differences.

  Q101 Sir John Stanley: Sir Sherard, you pronounce yourself satisfied with the British Government strategy towards Afghanistan, and I assume that you are satisfied therefore with the broad ISAF strategy. But do you think that we have a satisfactory strategy to deal with what appears to me to be the single most corrosive area of impact on the effectiveness of the Karzai Government: the exercise of power by the Taliban through fear, intimidation, risk to family and cold-blooded murder? We see right now a systematic programme of assassination of government officials in Kandahar, as they try to see who exerts the real authority in that crucial city. Do we have a policy that can deal satisfactorily with the exercise of power through fear?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: No; clearly, Sir John, we don't, but as in Northern Ireland, Malaya, Palestine, Vietnam and Algeria, the solution is not going to be to try to suppress it by force alone. You need to protect the population, but to make the young men who are mounting the violence feel that they have a political stake in modern Afghanistan.

  The truth is that in 2001, when our special forces and our intelligence services helped the northern warlords to push the Taliban out of power, first in Kabul and then in Kandahar, the Taliban weren't defeated. They were pushed south and east and down, but they were never defeated. They were pushed out of power, but they weren't defeated and they were not part of the subsequent political settlement. They are violent; they are unpleasant. But, in my view, for many southern Pashtuns they represent a less bad alternative—a fairer, more predictable alternative than a corrupt and predatory Government. That is why we need to use military force, but it must be accompanied by a political outreach and a sense that these people can be brought into a fair, political settlement.

  Chair: Sir Sherard, that's very helpful. Thank you. You have indicated that you would like to say some things in private, so I propose that we now move to the private session. I am afraid that I have to ask members of the public to leave. We will be going public again at five o'clock, when we have two witnesses on the video link from Washington.

Resolved, That the Committee should sit in private. The witness gave oral evidence. Asterisks denote that part of the oral evidence which has not been reported at the request of the witness and with the agreement of the Committee.

  Q102 Sir John Stanley: Could you tell us what in your judgment would be the minimum settlement that the Taliban would accept, taking in and getting support for that settlement from their top leadership in Pakistan?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Yes. Very, very good question—and very difficult. As you know, Sir John, from your experience as a Minister in Northern Ireland, one cannot know when one enters a negotiation how it will end up. People's opening positions are not necessarily their concluding positions. All I can say is that from intelligence, from the websites and from my talks with people with access to the Taliban, it's rather like the FLN in Algeria, the IRA or any resistance movement—for example, the Jewish resistance movement against our presence in Palestine. There is a moderate camp that is fed up with fighting and that wants a political deal, and there are hard-line rejectionists.

  The key to a successful negotiation is to engage those moderates, that being a relative term. There has been plenty of signalling that they realise they made very serious mistakes during their last time in power. It is rather like a political party here reinventing its policies in opposition. You have the new Taliban—I suggested once that their symbol should be a red rose, because they like roses—and many of their extreme policies have been abandoned. You'll be able to watch television; they've said that they will allow girls to go to school; and they have said that beards will not be compulsory. They've realised that they made some horrific mistakes, but there's an old guard sitting there in Quetta and in Karachi who need to be isolated. We need to drive a wedge. Pakistan and the Afghans need to work with us but, in the end, it needs America in there, because only America will be trusted as the authoritative interlocutor.

  President Karzai is a much better man than he is made out to be. He's gone from hero to zero, but the truth is somewhere in between. He's a great king, but a poor chief executive. He's never going to be seen as the credible interlocutor for the Taliban. You need a four-way conversation—America, Pakistan, the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan. The key link in that is a serious discussion between quiet and muscular American diplomacy and the Taliban we can find. The longer we leave it, the more uncertain it is that the Taliban will talk. They may not talk. They need pressure from behind—as the Government of the Irish Republic put pressure on the IRA—and enticement and pressure, including military pressure, from the front. You may not succeed, but it is the last best hope we have of an honourable way out and of protecting and preserving the sacrifice of our troops, and the billions of pounds and dollars that have been spent in and on Afghanistan.

  Q103 Mike Gapes: Why should the hard-line Taliban in Quetta not sit out this timetable, knowing that American and British public opinion is reluctant at best, and that other NATO allies are wanting to jump out as quickly as possible? What possible incentive do they have to negotiate seriously?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Well, there's a wonderful document that you should get your Clerks to find for you. It's classified "secret NOFORN," but it has appeared—or at least it has been summarised—in The New York Times. It is called "The state of the Taliban 2009" and it is based on hundreds of interviews of Taliban detainees by American special forces. It shows, perhaps surprisingly, that the Taliban are human beings. They think, as you suggest, Mr Gapes, that they are winning, but they are tired of fighting. They hate foreigners, and among foreigners they include not just Americans and Brits, but Arabs and Pakistanis. They are primitive, conservative, religious nationalists. They want what you and I want, which is a better education, a better future for their children and to get back to their farms. They want an honourable recognition that they weren't defeated in 2001; they were pushed aside. They want to be dealt back into the political settlement.

  But you're quite right. Every day that goes by without us launching a serious negotiation, the more likely it is that they will say, "We'll just sit this out and once the Ifranji"—the foreigners—"have gone, we'll fight it out. We'll probably take parts of the south, and other parts of the south will be in the hands of the narco-mafia." The realists among them recognise that they're never likely to rule the whole of Afghanistan again. That's the aspiration in former article 1 of the Irish constitution, which says that the territory of the state is the whole island of Ireland. That's no longer a serious aspiration for the Taliban.

  Q104 Rory Stewart: We're all praying that we can do this with the United States, but we might need to think about a plan B. It's possible that we'll get to 2014 and hawks in the Department of Defence and in the United States will still not be ready to negotiate, and will still want to push ahead with the counter-insurgency campaign, calling for more resources and more time, at a moment when Britain will say, "No more combat operations". How do we prepare for that plan B? How do we make sure we don't end up with a repeat of Basra, where, at the very last moment, we diverged from the United States? How do we use the next three years to make sure that we can get to that position in 2014?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: I devoutly hope that we will not get to the position you describe, because it would have a major impact on the transatlantic relationship. There is a risk, with the Republicans in the ascendant in the House, that there will be pressure on President Obama, against his better judgment, to ramp up the military campaign yet further. You're quite right to point to that, Rory. The only way is gradually to move the British Army and British forces—one must never forget the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force, but above all the Marines and the Army—from a ground-holding territorial operation to a functional operation, to switch them out of holding territory into a training role, which could be in the south as well as in the north, and to do that by evolution, rather than by revolution, always taking the Americans with us, but being very firm with them about what we want and what we don't want.

  There have been cases, I'm sorry to say, of different branches of the British armed forces telling the Americans different things without ministerial authority, because they wanted different things for their own agenda. This needs clear ministerial direction and a clarification of what Ministers want. Some of these mil-mil conversations end up with things being pre-cooked between the US and the UK militaries before they are subject to political approval back in London, and/or you get different parts of the military lobbying for their own hobby-horses without clear political approval.

  Q105 Rory Stewart: So the answer, finally, would be that we need to make sure that British generals ultimately get it very clear in their heads that the 2015 deadline is serious, and that they can't fantasise about it being fungible or about the idea that if Petraeus can somehow pull off an extension, they, too, can pull off an extension.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Well, I wouldn't put it, personally, quite as harshly as that. I don't think we will end up there. I think it will be a much more nuanced draw-down. I think there will be a negotiated end. Four years is a very long time in Afghan politics.

  Q106 Sir Menzies Campbell: I was very interested in what you said about Karzai. Eighteen months ago, at the Wehrkunde in Munich, Holbrooke treated him with public disdain. It is no secret that the relationship between the two of them has been pretty poor. Just how much could Karzai contribute to a settlement of the kind you have described? What would he bring with him that he alone could provide?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: What he brings, Sir Menzies—I am very fond of President Karzai. I know him extremely well. I used to see him once a week as Ambassador. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and I have been walking with him in Scotland with the Prince of Wales. He is a great king, but a poor chief executive. ***

  What he can bring to a settlement is that sort of quasi-monarchical leadership. He is a man who symbolises his country's rebirth. He is fluent in Pashto, in Dari and English. Many of his instincts about civilian casualties and private security contractors are right. He is a true politician, a true retail politician, who feels what his people feel. He is just an absolutely hopeless administrator, and he doesn't realise that governing means choosing. He thinks that governing means avoiding a choice.

  Q107 Sir Menzies Campbell: So who is going to fulfil the chief executive role, if not him?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: No. This is very sensitive territory, but many of us dealing with this problem have suggested President Karzai shouldn't be removed. He can't be removed.

  Q108 Sir Menzies Campbell: I don't believe he can.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: He should be encouraged to take his place in history, in a gradual way, presiding over a peace process. A new constitutional settlement might well involve the creation of a Prime Minister-like post in Kabul, that could be held by a Tajik, with a redistribution of power between the Executive and Parliament within the Executive—and above all between Kabul and the provinces and districts. ***

  Q109 Sir Menzies Campbell: That project for 2007 was made more difficult by the results last week. In one of the euphoric post-election speeches by the Republicans elected, I heard the person say, "We're going to get a victory in Afghanistan". If that sort of attitude pervades the House of Representatives, then it's going to make it very, very difficult for Obama to move in the direction you suggest.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: I agree, Sir Menzies. General Petraeus himself said that this isn't about victory; it's about a long-term military struggle. But I don't think it need be about a long-term military struggle if a political approach is adopted. We mustn't forget that according to the strategy that we have signed up to, we are supposed to have stabilised 40 districts in southern and eastern Afghanistan by the end of next month. We are nowhere near achieving that—that performance measure has been forgotten. Forty districts next year and 40 the year after is an almost impossible target, and it certainly won't be done by garrisoning these areas and putting men in forts. For the Pashtuns, seeing a man in a fort is a provocation not a pacification.

  Q110 Chair: Sir Sherard, may I share a problem with you? I have just been told that due to a technical glitch we failed to record the first 10 minutes of this session.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Thank heavens.

  Q111 Chair: Maybe you feel relieved. Do you feel that you have covered the points that you wanted to make about the role of the military after those 10 minutes?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Yes. In the United States there is a problem.

  Q112 Mr Ainsworth: You talk about the United States going forward and a potential problem with the change in Congress, but what you haven't said—you're not saying it, or I haven't for quite a long while that it's the case—is what has been the problem to date, and where it has come from. I know that you have some views on that.

  Rory Stewart: You are being diplomatic, Sherard.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: I am being very diplomatic. Neither the former Defence Secretary nor the former director is going to tempt me into being completely frank. There is a very serious problem for us with the United States as an ally. It is a house divided—in Kabul and in Washington. The Woodward book doesn't give the half of what is really going on between them all. We are a very minor player in what is inside baseball; we are the major outside player, but we are still a minor player. It needs a lead from the top. It needs the Prime Minister of the day to speak very robustly to the President. But all down the line, it needs us to be much more conditional in saying that we are prepared to go along with something that is a result of often sins of omission as much as commission by the American Administration. Again, that is easy for me to say, but difficult to do.

  The truth is that, at root, the American Republic is not really equipped, constitutionally or in any other way, for that kind of quasi-imperial expeditionary adventure. Americans are too nice. They are not interested and not very good at ruling other people, which is essentially what this is about—ruling them in a benign sense, temporarily, in order to prepare Afghanistan for independence, as it were. America is not equipped to do that. It has huge resources and a very confident military, but very weak other parts of the machine. But I would not want that attributed to me.

  Q113 Chair: Do you feel that you have covered all your bases now? Have you got across all the points?

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Yes. Thank you very much.

  Q114 Chair: On behalf of the Committee, I thank you very much. One usually goes through a ritual passage of thanking the witnesses, but I genuinely thank you for what has been an invaluable contribution. It is much appreciated.

  Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: I really mean it when I say that I welcome this inquiry. The timing couldn't be better and it is about all our knowledge of history, which Britain has uniquely—we really do do it better. It is about the politicians taking charge. I met Obama's Vice-President—I had lunch with him alone in Helmand in January. As happens with American politicians when they meet the British Ambassador, he said to me that he felt the need to quote Churchill. Apropos of nothing, he said, "Mr Ambassador, Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others". I said to him, "Mr Churchill also said something else, Mr Vice-President. He said that you can rely on America to do the right thing once it has exhausted all the alternatives". Your inquiry is about helping America now to do the right thing. The military campaign is not wrong, but it is not enough.

  Chair: I think we can safely quote that.

The public were readmitted.

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