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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 115-127)

  Q115 Chair: May I welcome the public back to this session of the Foreign Affairs Committee and our inquiry into Afghanistan? You might well have been entitled to expect a video-link to Washington at present, but technical gremlins have intervened and we only have an audio-link. So I will be grateful if people try to avoid rustling papers and things like that, while we do our best to deal with the audio-link here.

  We have two witnesses in Washington at the moment, Gilles Dorronsoro, who is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Foundation as an expert in Afghanistan and South Asia, and Gerard Russell, who is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in Harvard University.

  May I give a warm welcome to both of you?

  Gerard Russell: Thank you.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: Thank you.

  Q116 Chair: Do you have an opening statement or anything similar that you would like to make? Or shall we go straight into questions?

  Gilles Dorronsoro: I am happy to go straight to the questions.

  Gerard Russell: I am happy, Mr Chairman, going straight to questions, having submitted a written statement earlier.

  Q117 Chair: Okay. I read that with interest, Gerard.

  Would you like to comment on what impact you feel the surge has had on the security situation across Afghanistan and on what its longer-term effects are likely to be?

  Gilles Dorronsoro: I would say that altogether the surge has had two different effects. The first effect is in the south, in Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the troops have been directed. The further short-term effect has been more violence, with a lot of casualties on both sides. The Taliban has taken a more careful approach in some places, but they are not done; they are still there.

  In the other part of the country, what is clear is that the Taliban have the momentum—especially in the east and north. In the last year, the last six months, they have made a lot of progress. So, altogether the surge is not working the way that it was meant to. There is no change in the overall balance of power and the Taliban are still making problems.

  Chair: Thank you.

  Gerard Russell: Let me just add to Gilles's statement a couple of other thoughts. First, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the military situation. There are so many conflicting reports. However, it is easy to see, over the course of years, certain trends. What those trends highlight is that no matter what efforts are made on the military front, the political and law enforcement side of the equation is more important in terms of getting communities to side with the Government.

  Earlier this morning, I was hearing from Michael Waltz, who was the UN's commander in the field in Khost province. He was relaying the comments made to him by an elder in the Mangal tribe, down in that area, who said basically, "You can give us all the aid you want to build the schools, as many as you wish, and we welcome that, but if somebody comes and puts a knife to my throat in the night, what am I supposed to do?" That isn't actually something that a military operation can easily address. It is an issue of getting communities to stand together against the Taliban and the Haqqani network. In that particular respect, I'm afraid, I don't yet see great progress being made.

  My second point would be that as a shaping operation that can enable talks to happen, the surge could be extremely effective, provided that is the strategy that is followed.

  Q118 Chair: Right. Well, we are informed that it is the strategy that's being followed. The number of insurgents killed is often used as some sort of measure of success. Do you have any views on this? Is that a reasonable way to look at the situation?

  Gilles Dorronsoro: I would say that that is not a reasonable way of looking at the situation. As far as we know—but I'm not even aware of very good information on that—thousands of Taliban have been killed since the beginning of the surge. The political impact is difficult to appreciate. Most probably, all the older generation of the Taliban have been killed, and you have now new militants who are more radical, probably, and less willing to negotiate with the coalition. I would say, no, it's not a reasonable way of looking at the situation, because more violence—the body count—means that Afghan society will be more polarised. It's going to be us against them. In this case, I don't see how the foreign troops would get any kind of support from the Afghan population. That's exactly what we are seeing now in Kandahar, where they are not able to find local notables, local tribal leaders, local people to work with.

  Chair: Gilles, could we ask you in your answers to get a bit nearer the microphone? Gerard is coming over very clearly, but we suspect that you're a bit further away from the microphone.

  Q119 Mr Baron: Hello there. Thanks for joining us. Can I ask a question? Most people I ask this question seem to agree with the premise of it, but struggle with the answer. History suggests that for a successful counter-insurgency campaign, you need various preconditions such as control of the border, good troop density levels, credible Government and the support of a majority of the population. To many, not one of those conditions exists in Afghanistan. What makes you think—if you do think this—that we are going to have any measure of success in that country?

  Gerard Russell: Well, I would ask Gilles to speak first, actually, because I think his view is very clear on this.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: I think it's a very good point. It's a very good series of questions, actually. South of the border, the border is out of control. The Taliban have a clear amount of support inside the Pakistani Government, so Pakistan is a sanctuary. In Kandahar, the Taliban are fighting two hours by car from their sanctuary. So the border is out of control.

  The second point is the level of troops. There are comparatively a lot of foreign troops in two or three provinces and the south, possibly, but you have to see that, for example, for all the north you have little more than 10,000 troops, and it's not exactly a secret that German troops are not very—basically, this country is open to the Taliban insurgency in the north, because there are not enough foreign troops and it's not possible to send enough.

  The third point is about the Government. We all know about Karzai's Government. It's going to be extremely difficult to drill an Afghan national army and, of course, an Afghan national police in the next three or four years. I do not trust the quantitative approach: "We have more policemen or soldiers, so it's good". What we have to look at is their level of training, their competence. Here we have a problem. I don't think we're going to have an Afghan national army able to stop the Taliban or contain the Taliban in two years.

  The last thing is the population's support. The Taliban have a kind of support in a lot of places. The fact that the Afghan Government is now absent from lots of provinces, makes the Taliban more and more a kind of parallel Government, and because they are involved with some kind of order they have some kind of popular support. So, for all these reasons, I think that the situation—

  Chair: Gerard.

  Gerard Russell: Gilles makes a lot of very good points. It is difficult for me to comment on military strategy, but I know that there has been some concern that to have secured the borders would have been a more effective approach than to have got into the population centres. I am not a military expert and I wouldn't pretend to be, but it is certainly true that that question is a very good one.

  I would, in general, make a comment about the lists. Of course, there is an excellent list of points and of questions that should be asked about the counter-insurgency campaign. I suppose that the other question to ask is, "Can a foreign force ever really hope to be effective in countering an Afghan insurgency?" One of the things that concerns me, looking back on the campaign to date, is whether we were right to think that it was ever going to work to put foreign troops into Afghan population centres—towns and villages—and keep them secure. It often seems to have been the stimulus for confrontation rather than the resolution of it, and for me that points to a much greater potential that existed for foreign forces in Afghanistan to have been all along in a position where they acted as a weapon of last resort, rather than being the front line of engagement with the Taliban.

  Q120 Mike Gapes: Can I ask you about the long-term commitment of the coalition to troops remaining in Afghanistan? A number of countries have already withdrawn or indicated that they intend to withdraw, and we know that President Obama made a political commitment to begin a reduction in US troops from July 2011. What's the attitude of the US military to that commitment and, regarding the long term, what's the attitude to whether there will be a deadline, like the British Prime Minister has signalled, of a complete end to a combat role by 2015? Is there an American view forming about something similar and, if so, what is it?

  Gerard Russell: In the readings that I've made, there isn't very much said directly by the military about the issue of the July 2011 date, but from those who have served in the military and are close to the American military, you see a great deal of criticism, and there is a feeling from some who have been in Afghanistan that it leads to an inevitable ebbing of American credibility in the country.

  The other side of the picture is, of course, that with such a large presence in the country, inevitably the political cost increases all the time, and arguably the levels of casualties and expense are simply unsustainable and therefore a reduction has to come at some point. But in answer to your direct question about the American military's attitude, my guess is that they are unhappy, and I think that they would be similarly unhappy with any end stage that would be set, even if it were 2015. My instinct, to be honest, when reading Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, was that, having received an increase in troops in Afghanistan, there would perhaps be a feeling in some parts of the military that it would be really very hard for the civilian Government now to reduce forces even in 2011, by any significant degree.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: I think that you have two different dynamics. The first is that the Europeans must be out of Afghanistan by 2014.

  The second dynamic is that the US military is always asking for more resources. Since 2002, you have a surge every year in Afghanistan. Every year, you have more troops and more money, and the result is not that great. What you are trying to do in a way is trying to stop the unending increase in resources. I don't think it's going to work, because the deadline has been pushed back. For example, when I came to Washington two years ago, the deadline was 18 months. In 18 months, we needed to see something on the ground. If not, we would have to withdraw. Then the deadline was 2011. It's no longer 2011, in fact; it's going to be 2014. I think there is an increased dynamic inside the military. It's never to say, "Okay, we have to negotiate". It's always to ask for more resources. Obama doesn't seem to be able to stop these demands. I think with the result of the latest election in the House especially, it will be more and more difficult to stop any increase. What we could very well have next year is demands for more troops in Afghanistan to compensate for the withdrawal of the Europeans and, very likely, the degradation of the security in the north and east of Afghanistan.

  Q121 Mr Baron: May I turn us briefly to the 2015 deadline? A recent US Government inspection found that something like a quarter of Afghan soldiers could not work unsupervised. Only about 3% come from the predominantly Pashtun south. Some would suggest the Afghan police are corrupt and ineffective, and we know the attrition rates are high. So say the sceptics. How optimistic are you that the 2015 deadline is realistic, and what level of security do you think the Afghan forces will be able to provide?

  Gerard Russell: There is a 2015 deadline and there's a 2014 deadline, which is even more ambitious and which is President Karzai's. You have focused on one point that I think is of critical importance, which is the number of Pashtuns who are in the Afghan security forces. Although Pashtuns from the east and the north can to some extent fulfil a role, it's very hard for those who don't speak Pashto to do the job that particularly the police are meant to do, which is to integrate themselves with the community and establish co-operative mechanisms with the community. That I would highlight as a serious problem. I'm glad that the UK and the US have begun to address it by this issue of community security. Whatever issues it brings with it—it brings many risks and dangers—it's the only way of getting Pashtuns to serve, given that the police are widely seen as a Tajik-dominated service.

  You're absolutely right to highlight the risks and threats. I will only say that on the optimistic side—it is important, given the amount of pessimism there is, to emphasise the optimistic side—when Najibullah was left on his own by the Soviet forces and they withdrew, giving him money and weapons but very little in the way of soldiers on the ground, many people predicted that he would fall within weeks or months, yet he survived for three years with not a terribly good security force, although perhaps it was a little better than it is now, and there was a lot of pessimism about his prospects. That helps to emphasise that this may need to be an issue not of military force as conventionally understood but of psychological or moral force. The question is really whether the Afghan Government can command the loyalty of their subjects, rather than necessarily a question of how good their soldiers are.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: Yes, I totally agree with what Gerard said. If you think about the Afghan national army as a way to contain the Taliban, it's not going to work—first, because the Taliban are already penetrating the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. What we have seen in a district north of Ghazni recently—last week, I think—is that the whole district went to the Taliban, joined up to the Taliban. That kind of thing can happen again and again in the next two years. So the ANA and the Afghan police are not going to stop the Taliban. They could be part of a political process. They could be part of negotiations. They could stabilise the situation after the political lead, but right now, what we are seeing in Ghazni and what we saw in Laghman province last summer, for example, is that it is clear that the Afghan national army does not have the autonomy to operate alone. Secondly, the ethnic composition of the army is a real, serious problem. I don't see how you can train officers in two or three years, considering that the overall state structure is truly disappearing in a lot of places in Afghanistan. That is the problem. How can you build an army without a state?

  Q122 Rory Stewart: Gilles, following on from your conversation about the state, what is the state theory of the coalition? Is it trying to create a centralised state, a decentralised state? How does it think that Afghanistan runs? It keeps saying that we need governance, but what is this governance?

  Gilles Dorronsoro: Actually, I don't think there is a theory. I think that there are a lot of local initiatives. Altogether, that doesn't make sense for me. You also suspect that for efficiency's sake you have to deal locally, so you don't deal with the governor if the governor is not good. You go through the provincial reconstruction team—the PRT. Most of the work of the coalition is done in parallel with the Afghan state. In a lot of cases, that is destroying the credibility of the Afghan state. That is the first dynamic. That is true also for the NGOs to a certain extent.

  The second dynamic is that we want to enforce regulation at the top. We want to fight corruption at the top. Of course, it is not working. Well, it is working in some specific cases, such as the Ministry of Mines, for example, where it seems that something is moving. But overall, it is not possible, because it is going straight to Karzai and to people who are extremely close to Karzai. Some of those are working for the CIA, which creates a problem every time we try to fight corruption. There is a temptation to deal locally with whoever is in control. There is the temptation to put pressure on Karzai at the top, but all that doesn't make for an overall coherent policy.

  Gerard Russell: Thank you for the question, Rory. I agree with Gilles about the way that things have worked in practice. If I may, I will give two slightly separate responses to your question. First, in respect of development and national strategy towards Afghanistan, you rightly identify that the emphasis has, in theory, been on a top-down model of governance. In particular, whenever it has been proposed, for example, to enlist Afghans in a local fighting force in a community initiative of any kind, there has always been the desire to link that into the Ministry of Interior, which to some extent defeats the purpose. One of the problems in the south and east of Afghanistan is that the Ministry of Interior has lacked credibility and been seen as a body that was ill disposed towards Pashtuns.

  To some extent the top-down approach is the result of theory and empirical evidence, I suppose from the Balkans. To another extent, I'm afraid, it's a failing of the international community that it tends to engage most easily with those who speak its language, particularly those who speak English, those who are educated, and those who live in the capitals. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is very often those who have come to the country from America, who are almost by definition ill-suited to lead a country in a state of conflict, because they lack credibility on the street, because they don't speak the language of the ordinary person, and because they have been insulated from the sufferings of their country over the last 10 or 20 years. When I look sometimes at the structures in Kabul that are in charge of local government, I remember what Wilfred Thesiger said in the 1950s about those who were sent from Baghdad to govern Maysan—of course, a place that you know well, Rory. He said that such people never had a deep-seated investment in the places to which they were sent, and therefore never troubled to really understand local issues or to resolve things in a way that would deliver long-term stability. It would have been much better from the beginning if we had tried to find solutions at a local level. We have done so, as Gilles describes, in a somewhat haphazard way and without a proper strategy.

  The second point that I wanted to make was allied to that. Besides the issue of the Kabul-down approach, there has also been the PRT-up approach. Somewhat disjointed, partly because each country, with its own province to look after, has adopted a different approach.

  Q123 Mr Roy: Gentlemen, as the years go by, what level of support for reconciliation is there from the American people, the US Administration and the US military?

  Gerard Russell: I'll go first, and Gilles can come in just a second. I feel that there is some confusion over the word "reconciliation", which is used in two different senses.

  One is to describe the possibility of proper negotiations with the Taliban. I shall give an example of this. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) successfully mediated with the Taliban to produce the piece of paper with Mullah Omar's signature on it; that is used for giving polio vaccinations in places like Laghman, and has given to this day protection from the Taliban. That is one sense of reconciliation. It means something of that kind; a negotiation with Mullah Omar, with the Quetta Shura. In another sense, it is used to mean persuading Taliban to defect.

  These two exercises are totally different in kind, even if they may have some things in common, just as persuading Soviets to defect in the old days of the Cold War was not the same as negotiating with the Soviet Government. I would wish to distinguish between the two, and I am afraid at this stage—well, there has been progress towards an understanding of the importance of both of those things, but the idea of persuading individuals to change sides is much more popular.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: Well, I totally agree with what Gerard said. First, reconciliation in the sense that you are going to ask Taliban to defect to Karzai's side is not working. Actually it is not working; it never worked. What you have is very small groups or some individuals joining the Government, but it has no strategic impact. The more you're fighting, the more you're killing people, the less you will see people defecting, because it is the mechanism of polarisation. It is absolutely classical in Afghan society, so this policy is going nowhere.

  The second policy, which is political talk with the Taliban leadership, never even started. It is clear that it is not supported by the US military, and not even by the State Department, so it's a dead end. So in the next few months, you are going to see probably some move towards tribal militias, but it's not going to work. You're going to have a small-scale defection here and there, and no political talks.

  Q124 Mr Roy: Is there a difference in thinking on the willingness to accept reconciliation between the Administration and the US military?

  Gerard Russell: In the sense of accepting the idea of negotiating?

  Mr Roy: Yes.

  Gerard Russell: It is quite hard to see the exact dividing line. I am not sure, but it's a division between military and civilians. There are plenty of people, including former senior people in the US military, who see the importance ultimately of negotiations. I do not know whether Gilles and I agree about this. I don't necessarily say that negotiations are a thing that will work today, but I wish that there was some evidence that genuine effort was going to go into creating an atmosphere that would permit talks to happen at some stage in the next year or two. So, I don't say that America should declare immediately its intention of negotiating, given that the Taliban would not necessarily accept such an offer. I think that the resistance, fundamentally, is an issue of public opinion, and that is where it has to be addressed.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: What I am seeing right now is that the strategy is, mostly, a military one. There is no real political side—no one is going to negotiate with the Taliban, let's say until at least next year, the end of next year. Negotiation doesn't make sense right now.

  What the US military and, probably, the US Administration want is to put military pressure on the Taliban. But what is probably going to happen is that next year the Taliban will be stronger than this year—everything points in that direction. So, it will be more difficult to negotiate next year than this year. That is why I am not terribly optimistic about negotiation, even in one or two years.

  Q125 Mr Ainsworth: You are pretty pessimistic about the ability to align maybe what has been UK policy for some time now—that is, that military effort has to be combined with a political solution and reconciliation. To what degree do you think that we are going to be able to exercise influence over the United States, or are you totally pessimistic about our ability to shift American policy in this regard?

  Gerard Russell: It's Gerard speaking, if you can't tell from the accents—I hope, by the way, that you admire this example of Anglo-French co-operation.

  Chair: We do. And we are getting the hang of the accents.

  Gerard Russell: Excellent. I am glad to hear it.

  I think there has been progress and some of that is due to Britain. You heard today from Sherard Cowper-Coles, who did a great deal to push this agenda forward with, I think, some success. It is a big leap for a Democrat President to make, and it carries a lot of risk. That is why I say that public opinion is very important. There are a lot of political bear traps in the reconciliation process and, particularly, in public declarations of a desire for negotiations. I don't necessarily say that that has to happen. I wish there were more evidence of a low-level practical approach, such as that adopted in Northern Ireland, where there was at least a link between the British Government and the IRA for many years, even though it was kept secret. As to whether that would happen, I think it is possible, because I think there is more pragmatism in the Administration than necessarily comes through in public declarations, but very difficult. It requires continued argument from commentators and from those countries and Governments that see the need for it.

  Gilles is right to point out the difficulties. Equally, of course, peace processes in the past, including in Northern Ireland, were regarded as being unlikely to succeed, and yet people tried them and, eventually, they got somewhere. I think that there are some grounds for optimism. In the regional picture, both China and Iran will have a strong interest in stability in Afghanistan. It might not look like stability of the kind that we originally imagined, but they do need to protect their investments, and they have opportunities in Afghanistan—particularly, of course, mineral deposits, but also as a transit route for supplies of various kinds, not just natural gas. For that reason, I am a little more optimistic than Gilles. Either through a formal process of talks with the Taliban or through a de facto armistice on the ground, perhaps, if we are clever enough, a form of peaceful co-existence can be engendered. I haven't given up on that.

  Gilles Dorronsoro: A way to answer the question is to notice that Afghanistan was totally out of the agenda at the last election, so Obama doesn't feel a lot of pressure from the Democratic left to make a deal in Afghanistan. On the contrary, he doesn't want to look weak on foreign policy—that's the usual problem for Democratic Presidents—and the House, of course, is going to put on pressure for a more military approach to the Afghan conundrum. So Obama, I think, is not going to take risks on Afghanistan, because there is no pressure from public opinion to do something to get out of Afghanistan, really. My feeling—the presidential election is in 2012—is that Obama is not going to do anything very strong or dramatic until 2012. After that, we'll see if Obama is re-elected or not, but for this mandate, I think it's basically not very likely you will see something.

  Q126 Andrew Rosindell: Can I ask you to comment on how you see the role of Pakistan in all this, and how that impacts on the situation in Afghanistan, particularly with regard to US policy and their approach to Pakistan? Do you think Pakistan is a country we can rely on?

  Gilles Dorronsoro: This is Gilles speaking, but I think you understand that. I don't think there is a US policy towards Pakistan, or I don't understand what it is. You have a clear US policy towards India. We have seen that in the last few days. Towards Pakistan, it's a mix of different things that lack intellectual coherence, and that is producing very contrary results.

  Concretely, when it was time to put hard pressure on Pakistan between 2001 and 2004-05, when the Taliban were still very weak, the White House did not put any kind of serious pressure on Pakistan. Now the situation is such that even if Islamabad and the military wanted to break the Taliban and secure the border, it would not be possible. It's now that the White House is putting some kind of pressure on Pakistan. Even this pressure is half-hearted, so you have the worst results. First, the Pakistani establishment doesn't trust Washington, because it is obvious that Washington's long-term interests are towards India; Obama's last trip to India is very clear about that. So there is no trust. Secondly, for example, the drone attacks on the border are resented by a large part of the population. It's not going to work long-term to secure US interests. It's a kind of mixed bag of things that could work but are done half-heartedly.

  The result of that is that the Pakistani military support the Taliban and will continue to support the Taliban to the end. Just from that, you're sure that the Taliban will not lose the war in Afghanistan, because they have a sanctuary. Altogether, I think people in Washington should reconsider their whole strategy towards Pakistan. It doesn't make sense the way it's done right now.

  Gerard Russell: I must give a very brief response to your interesting question, and then I fear I have to leave, but Gilles will be able to stay a little longer. The Pakistani position is conditioned by many factors, some of which are outside our control. The relationship with President Karzai among some in the Pakistani establishment remains difficult. I think ultimately, they just don't believe that the current Government in Kabul is well disposed to Pakistan or will survive very long after a US draw-down. There's no doubt that the news and the prospect of a US draw-down is going to influence their thinking.

  However, I am more optimistic than Gilles on one point. I think he disagrees with me on this, but I don't see that Pakistan will necessarily be interested in pushing for a Taliban victory that would include the fall of Kabul and the north. I think it improbable that they would push for that if they felt that it would ultimately destabilise their investments and China's investments in southern Afghanistan. China has invested $4 billion in the Aynak copper mine, which is vitally important for China's growth, and China is Pakistan's most important partner. It is beyond the US, in terms of importance, simply because it is there on Pakistan's borders and it is their most reliable ally. So, in that sense, I have some optimism that although bits of the Pakistani establishment certainly support the insurgency, none the less, the overall national interest will point to some kind of compromise in the end, and will not drive them to seek the fall of the entire country, as the Taliban did in the '90s.

  Chair: Gerard, we have just one more question left. It will only take a couple of minutes. Are you able to stay for another couple of minutes?

  Gerard Russell: I can stay for just two more minutes.

  Q127 Sir John Stanley: You said right at the beginning that the American military did not like deadlines being put up by which time they had to withdraw. I would suggest that the American military are perhaps even more concerned about not being left as the only fighting force in a particular location. If that is not a particular concern to the American military, I think that it is a deep concern to the American politicians.   We see now that the Canadians, the Dutch, the Australians, the British—all those countries—have set dates for coming out of combat operations, or there is a serious debate as to how long they should stay in Afghanistan. Do you see the American civilian political leadership being prepared to stay on in Afghanistan beyond, say, 2015, or do you think that they will actually end up coming in line pretty well with the British Government's policy of coming out of combat operations by 2015?

  Gerard Russell: It is a very difficult question to judge. I think that either scenario is possible—[Interruption.]

  Chair: Are you there? Okay. Thank you very much, colleagues. We meet again tomorrow at 2 o'clock. Meeting over.

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