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

5  Prospects for a political settlement?

The international context

98. With a date for British combat withdrawal now set firmly for 2015, the UK Government is keen to see the start, as swiftly as possible, of an Afghan-led process of political reconciliation that "seeks to address the concerns of the insurgency and its support base",[173] provided that the eventual settlement "is representative; gives no one group disproportionate influence; upholds human rights and the rule of law and is in accordance with Afghanistan's Constitutional framework".[174] However, like so many other aspects of policy in Afghanistan, this is an area where the UK is heavily reliant on the actions of others, not least the US, to see its goals come to fruition.

99. In theory, the policy of political reconciliation has the support of a range of key players. In his inaugural address in November 2009, President Karzai offered his commitment to it, saying that security and peace cannot be achieved through fighting and violence. This was subsequently reinforced at the London Conference in January 2010 when the Afghan government committed to take this forward and to "offer an honourable place in society to those willing to renounce violence, participate in free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution, cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and pursue their political goals peacefully".[175] Then in June 2010, some 1,600 Afghan participants at a Consultative Peace Jirga held in Kabul endorsed plans to negotiate with elements of the Taliban leadership.

100. Although a number of prominent Afghans disagreed with the process and outcome of the Jirga, opinion polls and surveys appear to show a level of support among Afghans for negotiating with the Taliban. In a recent survey by the Asia Foundation, 83% of respondents supported the Afghan government's attempts to negotiate, compared to 71% in the previous year.[176] To this end, the international community has offered funding and other resources to facilitate the process; at the London Conference over £100 million was pledged from nations including Japan, Germany, Australia, Spain and Greece. The UK pledged to contribute £5 million in 2010-11.[177]

101. Many witnesses indicated that the international community's approach remains incoherent in several respects. Matt Waldman stated: "Some military officials see reconciliation as a tool of counter-insurgency to induce high-level insurgent defections, and thus weaken and divide the enemy. Some see it as a way of cutting deals with the Taliban in order to facilitate foreign forces' departure. Others see it as a process to address grievances between hostile groups, especially the government and Taliban, in order to resolve the core conflict and achieve a more inclusive political settlement".[178] Similarly, James Fergusson stated that "dialogue is blocked by international incoherence and insurgent mistrust of the coalition, which is compounded by the military surge".[179] Others pointed to the international community's focus on re-integration at the expense, perhaps, of political reconciliation. While re-integration aims to provide economic incentives and opportunities, including vocational training and community projects in agriculture or reconstruction to persuade insurgents to desist from violence, reconciliation focuses more on negotiations about future political structures and attempts to reach out to those more focused on, and motivated by, political goals.

102. Crucially, according to our evidence, two key players, the insurgents and the US government, appear to be less than wholehearted in their support for moving forward swiftly with reconciliation. Also of concern is the fact that Pakistan, whose position will be crucial in the success or otherwise of any negotiations, shows no intention of revealing its hand over reconciliation to its Western allies. We consider these issues, and what role the UK can play in this area, below.

The key players, their positions and roles


103. For the purposes of propaganda, the Taliban is keen for the insurgency to be regarded as a unified movement under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is ostensibly controlled by Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Rahbari Shura (Supreme Council). In reality, the Afghan insurgency is a mix of Islamist factions, power-hungry warlords, criminals and tribal groupings all pursuing their own economic, political, criminal and social agendas and interests, from local feuds to establishing a pan-Islamic caliphate. Three major groups operate under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: Mullah Omar's Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Hizb-e-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. While the latter two sometimes co-operate with the Taliban leadership, they are considered autonomous factions.[180] Thus, whilst official Taliban statements maintain that there can be no reconciliation talks with the Afghan government until foreign troops leave Afghanistan, in reality the situation, involving a range of groups with different motives and backers, is far more complex and nuanced, and has previously spawned preliminary discussions under the patronage of various interlocutors including Saudi Arabia and the United Nations.

104. Having recently inflicted more casualties on coalition troops and Afghan security forces than at any time since late 2001 when it was ousted from power, and in many cases having extended their grip on Afghans' daily lives, there are those within the Taliban who argue that insurgents have little to gain from accepting an offer of reconciliation.[181] We were told that although the movement was suffering, and many commanders were being killed, the insurgents have taken succour from the knowledge that the government is widely loathed and that they have a plentiful supply of recruits and a sanctuary inside Pakistan.[182] Others, including many coalition military sources, adopt a different perspective, arguing that military pressure is causing a degree of battle fatigue and forcing many insurgents to re-think their position and consider reconciliation. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2009, Fotini Christia and Michael Semple observed:

    The idea that large groups of armed men bent on killing Americans and other Westerners can be persuaded to change sides may seem fanciful at first. But it is not—at least not in Afghanistan. After continuing uninterrupted for more than 30 years, war in Afghanistan has developed its own peculiar rules, style, and logic. One of these rules is side with the winner. […] Afghanistan's recent history is replete with examples of commanders choosing to flip rather than fight.[183]

105. What remains unclear is which elements of the insurgency might 'flip', and under what conditions. Michael Semple told us that most of the Taliban leadership might be pragmatic enough to consider entering peace talks if it was felt to be in their interests and would have little hesitation, as part of a deal, in agreeing to sever all ties with al-Qaeda.[184] Similarly, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said:

    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 honourable recognition that they weren't defeated in 2001; they were pushed aside. They want to be dealt back into the political settlement.[185]

106. We were told by Michael Semple that "a lot of people will show their true colours when the time is right", but that already "there is a significant level of interest among the original Taliban leadership with the "make-or-break role in any reconciliation process [resting] with the Khost Talibs and the Kandahari Talibs".[186] He added:

    That is not to say it is all easy and that it is going to happen tomorrow, but those are the people with whom we assume it is possible to sit down and have a very sensible discussion. They understand a lot more about the world than they are often given credit for, and they have a vision of a political settlement.[187]

107. The Haqqani network, which is most closely associated with al-Qaeda, and which operates out of Waziristan in Pakistan, appears to be less inclined than the Taliban to negotiate, and Michael Semple told us that it was "generally assumed that it would be impossible for them to go along with a negotiated settlement", although he added that he had "heard a few signals saying that that's not actually the case".[188] Indeed, since we heard Mr Semple's evidence, a number of media reports have indicated that the Pakistani military has been exerting pressure on the Haqqani network to enter into reconciliation negotiations.[189]

The need for confidence-building

108. Asked about the conditions that need to exist before insurgents might be persuaded to take part in negotiations, Michael Semple told us that they might be prepared to, "if they realised that they had no realistic military prospects of toppling the government in Kabul and taking over the country." However he qualified this by saying, "but what I really don't buy is this notion that this means that those on the international side and the government of Afghanistan have to sit back and wait for a transformation of the military situation".[190] Mr Semple said that "before you get anywhere near negotiations, a lot of Taliban say, 'what kind of protection or guarantee can you provide for us when we eventually enter a reconciliation stage?'"[191] Others too, cited the importance of taking low-profile actions to boost confidence and combat the mistrust which exists on both sides.[192] Thus far, with a view to doing this, the Afghan government has established a Detention Release Committee to review cases of suspected insurgents detained without evidence or charge. The Committee is part of the Afghan government's efforts to foster goodwill and trust and, in what was seen as a further "sweetener" for a future deal, the UN Sanctions Monitoring Committee also agreed in late July 2010 to remove a number of individuals from its sanctions list. Although the de-listing was generally welcomed in Afghanistan as a practical step towards reconciliation some human rights activists have warned it might lead to impunity for alleged perpetrators of war crimes.[193] We were also told that mistrust is being created by the coalition's emphasis on reintegration of fighters at the expense of genuine high-or mid-level talks.[194]

The role of the Afghan government

109. The task of confidence building is made more complicated by the fact that, as Michael Semple told us, the Taliban "do not particularly trust President Karzai" and are "unconvinced" that either he or the Kabul administration exercise real authority or have staying power. Added to this is the fact that many non-Pashtuns are said to mistrust President Karzai's attempts to reach out to the Taliban and are deeply suspicious that any Karzai-Taliban deal will only strengthen Pashtun hegemony in the country and further reduce minority rights.[195] Mr Semple explained that the insurgents "vary in their degree of allergy to Kabul. They certainly do not expect that a process where exclusively the Taliban talk to Karzai, who talks to the Kabul government, would be terribly fruitful. In my contacts with the Taliban they have been pretty consistent in saying that they expect an international role".[196] Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles told us that President Karzai is "never going to be seen as the credible interlocutor for the Taliban". He was of the opinion that President Karzai "is a man who symbolises his country's rebirth", and as such what he could bring to a settlement was "quasi-monarchical leadership".[197] However, Sir Sherard stressed that what was really needed was "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."[198]

The US role

110. The problem for those, like the British Government, who seek a swift start to negotiations is that while the US has said it supports "re-integrating" low-level Taliban fighters, it has not declared whether it is willing to negotiate with the Taliban leadership. Indeed, it has previously declared that Mullah Omar is 'irreconcilable'.[199] As the author and journalist Ahmed Rashid notes, "The United States still sees the battle in Afghanistan as a two-sided counterinsurgency, and its focus is on the military situation".[200] Yet all of those from whom we took evidence were convinced that the US's direct endorsement of, and participation in, talks was essential if a peace settlement is to be brokered and the conditions achieved to facilitate the withdrawal of western troops and ensure the longer-term stability for Afghanistan and the wider region.[201]

111. Speaking in December 2010, President Obama stated that "we will [...] fully support an Afghan political process that includes reconciliation with those Taliban who break ties with al-Qaeda, renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution".[202] However, there was no mention of what the US is looking for in a deal, what it is willing to do to bring about that peace or, crucially, when that process might commence. Many in the US, particularly in the military, are reported to believe that talk about reconciliation is premature and that Coalition Forces must first gain the upper hand over the Taliban before even considering reconciliation.[203] For many witnesses, American thinking on reconciliation remains incoherent and contradictory,[204] a point which is also apparent from Bob Woodward's recent book Obama's Wars, which details the positions of key US individuals and institutions on Afghanistan. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles told us that "the Woodward book doesn't give the half of what is really going on between them all". He concludes that the US is essentially, "a house divided—in Kabul and in Washington".[205]

112. There are two key consequences of a failure to engage swiftly and launch serious negotiations between the US and elements of the Taliban. The first is that the Taliban will be more likely to try and outlast the international community and "fight it out" once Coalition Forces have gone.[206] The second is an increased risk that the regional situation will deteriorate as key neighbours try to use the vacuum left by the US's reluctance to promote reconciliation to push ahead with a political settlement which favours certain countries or interests, at the expense of others. Ahmed Rashid has written extensively about this. He states that the Obama administration must start asserting major diplomatic pressure to ease regional tensions and persuade all of Afghanistan's neighbours to agree on a common position of non-interference".[207] Many Afghans fear that if the US waits too long to decide about talking to the Taliban, control of the situation will fall to Pakistan's ISI, as happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Such a state of affairs would be poorly received by most of the regional powers, particularly India, Iran, Russia and the five central Asian republics. In the wider conflict that could follow, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups could benefit.[208] Rashid adds that Pakistan and Iran in particular want to ensure that by the time the United States is ready to talk to the Taliban, the region's future will already be shaped by local powers, limiting Washington's options. He states that Afghanistan's ethnic and sectarian divisions are being exacerbated in the process.[209]


113. During our visit we gained the impression that the sheer size and power of the US military ensured that the US military remained largely in control of US Afghan policy, a point which is also detailed in Bob Woodward's book 'Obama's Wars'. We also sensed that with the July 2011 deadline looming, its priority was creating the conditions for troop withdrawal and that it sought to use overwhelming force to defeat the Taliban rather than using the surge as a tool to induce peace and reconciliation.

114. Indeed, although we heard repeated references during our visit to the number of insurgents killed, captured or considering 're-integration', we heard little recognition within military circles of the importance of higher-level political reconciliation.[210] Gilles Dorronsoro was one of those who told us it is "clear" that reconciliation "is not supported by the US military".[211] He added that the "dynamic" inside the military is "never to say, 'Okay, we have to negotiate', it's always to ask for more resources". He stated that President Obama "doesn't seem to be able to stop these demands".[212] Several witnesses were of the view that because of the change in the political balance of power in the US House of Representatives following the 2010 mid-term elections, and the difficulty in creating the conditions for security transition, it would be increasingly difficult for the US President to refuse further resource and troop increases if the US military issued such a request. Gilles Dorronsoro stated, "What we could very well have [in 2011] 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".[213]

115. There appears to be little doubt that many within the US military do not consider it appropriate for the international community to negotiate with insurgents until Coalition Forces have gained the upper hand on security. However, in contrast, Sir William Patey, HM Ambassador to Kabul, has said that "the history of conflict tells you it is possible to fight and talk at the same time".[214] Likewise, James Fergusson told us, "many senior British figures believe it is time to start trying to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban [...] yet official policy is simply to go on supporting the US's military strategy—even while this is demonstrably stuttering".[215] Sir Sherard stated: "As with strikes by our special forces, you need to strike with one hand and offer a political process with the other. […] 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".[216]

116. We conclude that the predominance of the belief that negotiations cannot commence until the insurgency has been defeated militarily is a matter for considerable concern, particularly given that the prerequisites for such a defeat do not appear currently to exist.

What role for the UK?

117. In an Afghan-led process, the UK's direct role in reconciliation should by right be a limited and supporting one. The UK could, as the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit suggests, use its experience from Northern Ireland and elsewhere, to support Afghan leaders in designing their reconciliation strategy and enforcement arrangements.[217] It may also have a role to play in encouraging regional neighbours to act in Afghanistan's interest, as we discuss below at paragraphs 132-136. However, arguably its most strategically important task is to convince the US of the merits of moving swiftly towards an endorsement of, and involvement in, talks with the Taliban leadership, and to highlight the significant risks to the West of not doing so.

118. We were encouraged to hear from a number of sources during our visit that the FCO's thinking on the timing of a political settlement appears to be more sensible than that of the US. However, the decision of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service to spend more than a year nurturing contacts and paying significant sums of money to a man whom they thought was one of the most senior commanders of the Taliban, only to find out he was a fake, inevitably took up resources that, over a period of 14 months, could have been spent on other endeavours.[218]

119. On the positive side, as Gerard Russell's written evidence noted, the UK's longstanding openness to the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban is gradually becoming orthodox doctrine among commentators in America.[219] However, it is yet to become official US policy, and, as we discussed previously, official statements still tend to focus on the need to push ahead with 're-integration' rather than high level political reconciliation.

120. James Fergusson said that influencing Washington's thinking on direct talks with Quetta should be central to the UK's strategy and that "as the second largest troop contributor in Afghanistan, the UK is surely better placed than any other NATO ally to steer the US in the direction of negotiations".[220] Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said, "Only the United States can succeed in this venture. […] 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."[221]

121. A number of recent media reports suggest that the US position may be beginning to soften somewhat and Gerard Russell suggested that there is "more pragmatism" in the US administration that might be apparent publicly, but for it to be exploited, "it requires continued argument from commentators and from those countries and governments that see the need for it".[222] Sir Sherard explained that the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke fully understood the nature of insurgency and the need for a political settlement, but he added that the problem often lies elsewhere in Washington. He continued:

    Sometimes, if the only or main tool in the toolbox is a hammer, every problem can look like a nail. [...] It is about encouraging all the good instincts of the Obama administration […]. 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.[223]

122. In Gerard Russell's view, "It is a big leap for a Democrat President to make, and it carries a lot of risk. […] There are a lot of political bear traps in the reconciliation process and, particularly, in public declarations of a desire for negotiation".[224] Michael Semple told us:

    [P]reviously it was very difficult for the US to contemplate something as radical as entering into a political accommodation with the Taliban. It is very difficult—it goes against many of the received narratives. That is why, as things have moved on over the past two or three years, publicly the US has moved [into]the position of being supportive of reintegration but hasn't been taking public stances in support of reconciliation with the Taliban leadership. I believe that there is an inherent logic in reconciliation that ultimately is bound to appeal to the US, and I would expect a significant change from the US to be supportive of reconciliation on the right terms. [...] [M]aybe there has been US foot-dragging, but I think there is a pretty serious prospect that the US, as part of its commitment to try to wind down the military entanglement in a sensible way that will lead to a stable Afghanistan, will come out more clearly in favour of reconciliation.[225]

Both Michael Semple and Gerard Russell suggested that at this stage it might be sufficient for the US to adopt a more low-level practical approach which would avoid the political pitfalls associated with grand and public declarations supporting the reconciliation process.

123. We conclude that the US is facing a rapidly closing window of opportunity to push ahead with political reconciliation through which it can help to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and the wider region and, in the process, ensure that the sacrifices made by allies and Afghans alike are not in vain. We further conclude that the UK Government is to be commended for its support of political reconciliation, but recommend that it re-double its diplomatic efforts to bring whatever influence it can to bear on the US to highlight the need for US leadership on the issue of reconciliation.


124. Pakistan is not the only regional player that has a critical role to play in Afghanistan's future, but given that elements of the Afghan insurgency continue to receive sanctuary and support from within Pakistan, a constructive Pakistani role in the Afghan reconciliation process is crucial. Michael Semple told us that of all the regional powers, Pakistan probably has the potential to help most in reconciliation and also "to spoil it if it were to so choose".[226] Witnesses were also in agreement that the arrests in early 2010 of the Taliban's military commander, Mullah Baradar (who is reported to have pursued unauthorised negotiations with the Afghan government), and others, amounted to a shot across the bows to demonstrate that the Pakistani military would obstruct talks unless they were fully involved in the negotiation process. As James Fergusson concluded, "Pakistan, through the ISI, controls what the Taliban do. It is the puppet master in many ways".[227] According to Michael Semple, Pakistan's influence lies not in choosing proxies in the insurgency and pushing them towards the negotiating table but rather, "in dealing with the US, Kabul and the other people involved, [it] gets a chance to say, 'Look, we're concerned about A, B and C and who can help us'".[228]

125. The FCO states that Pakistan "seems to be taking a greater interest in a political settlement in Afghanistan through offering support for an Afghan-led reconciliation effort", and as we noted above, there are some reports which suggest that the ISI are starting to exert some pressure on particular insurgent groups in this regard.[229] What Pakistan might push for in talks remains unclear. Sir Hilary Synnott told us that if Pakistan's constructive support is to be secured, it is important that "we look at these issues through their perspective, not ours, and realise that their interests are not the same as ours. If you look at it very coldly in that way, that gives you lots of indications and limits your expectations about the art of the possible".[230] Witnesses suggested that Pakistan's first concern is that there should be viable stability inside Afghanistan so that Afghan problems do not affect Pakistan, and that its second concern is to ensure that there should not be adverse Indian influence in Afghanistan, to the point where Pakistan worries that the Afghan frontier is a hostile one.[231]

126. While Dr Gohel stated that the Pakistan army wants to see a settlement that brings the Taliban back to Kabul in a power-sharing deal which would take Afghanistan back to the pre 9/11 position,[232] Gerard Russell told us he had "some optimism" that although parts of the Pakistani establishment support the insurgency, the overall national interest "will not drive them to seek the fall of the entire country, as the Taliban did in the '90s".[233] Pakistan will be particularly keen to make sure that the interests of its most important and reliable ally and neighbour, China (which in December agreed to a $35 billion trade deal with Pakistan) are not endangered. China has already invested considerably in Afghanistan, including some $4 billion in the Aynak copper mine, which is vital for China's growth. As Gerard Russell explained it seemed "improbable" that Pakistan under these circumstances would "be interested in pushing for a Taliban victory that would include the fall of Kabul and the north [...] if they felt that it would ultimately destabilise their investments and China's investments in southern Afghanistan".[234]

127. Although witnesses were unanimous that Pakistan must be involved in a political settlement, they argued that Pakistan's long-standing support for insurgent groups, especially the Haqqani network, meant that their inclusion in talks must be handled carefully. From an Afghan perspective, too, there is said to be "deep ambivalence about Pakistan's role in negotiations given the long memories of Pakistani connivance in the destruction of Afghanistan in mujaheddin times".[235]

128. In spite of the risks, witnesses were of the view that the international community had no alternative but to trust and work with the Pakistani military. Dr Shaikh told us that the international community knows that they will "ultimately work for its own interests" and that often these interests are "at cross-purposes with the interests of the international community". However, she added that as long as it depends on Pakistan to help it prosecute the war in Afghanistan, the international community has no choice but to rely on Pakistan.[236] Matt Waldman argued that a careful balance had to be struck between expediency and Afghan sovereignty". He added:

    If Pakistan believes its influence is insufficient, it will not support the process, yet the perception of excessive influence could trigger opposition within Afghanistan and countermeasures from regional states. Concerted efforts are required to reduce the extent to which Pakistan perceives a threat from India, and to improve the two countries' relations.[237]

129. Michael Semple told us that "we should never forget that Pakistan is the second largest beneficiary from successful reconciliation, peace in Afghanistan and a movement towards getting back on track—second only to the Afghan people themselves". He added that it is "important to deal with Pakistan in such a way that you encourage the good and discourage the bad, so that they actually take a positive stance towards reconciliation, let the space be used for pursuing reconciliation—after all, that is what they say they want [...]."[238]

130. Whether this can be successful or not will depend to a great extent on the US's current and future posture towards Pakistan. As we discussed above at paragraph 57, this has not always elicited many rewards and therefore, in this context, we welcome the tone and content of the remarks made recently by the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, during a visit to Islamabad when he explicitly rejected the idea that the US would abandon Pakistan in the aftermath of the Afghanistan war, stating that this was "one of several widely held 'misconceptions' about US intentions in the region". He added that both democracy and stability in Pakistan are in the "vital self-interest" of both countries and that "the only productive way forward is a long-term, enduring partnership".[239]

131. We conclude that the UK's influence and role in respect of Pakistan is probably limited when it comes to reconciliation in Afghanistan. However, it is in the UK's national interests, far more so than in those of the US, to see a strong and democratic Pakistan emerge. For this reason, it is imperative that the UK encourages the US to adopt a policy in relation to Pakistan which takes account of Pakistan's security concerns and which therefore may help to induce Pakistan's constructive role in reconciliation in Afghanistan. We are under no illusion about the difficulties involved in this, not least because the UK can only exercise limited influence over the US and because both the UK and US policies in the past have not resulted in significant shifts in Pakistan's position on the Afghan Taliban.


132. There was strong consensus amongst witnesses that Afghanistan's longer term security, and that of the broader region, meant that a strong regional element to any future political settlement would be required. With all of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups, including the Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pashtuns, having ties to neighbouring countries, international recognition of the importance of regional co-operation in support of Afghan stability has grown since 2001 and regional co-operation was a major theme of the London and Kabul Conferences.[240] As the FCO's written evidence states:

    None of Afghanistan's neighbours have an interest in either a return to Taliban rule or absolute chaos in Afghanistan. They have all, in different ways, suffered as a result of Afghanistan's varying levels of instability during the past 20 years (drugs, refugees, border management, economic impact). Some, such as Iran, are sensitive to any long-term Western military presence in Afghanistan. Russia and China do not want NATO to fail, because of the risk of extremist contagion. But they, too, are sensitive about the prospect of a long-term western military presence in Afghanistan.[241]

133. As has been well-documented in a range of publications, Iran's influence in Afghanistan has increased significantly of late. We saw for ourselves in Herat the positive effects that benign Iranian influence can have on security and prosperity. However, on the other hand, reports of Iranian support for the Taliban and of Afghan politicians show the dangers in the unfettered influence of a single regional neighbour. The challenge for the international community will be in ensuring that the benign elements of Iran's support can be maximised whilst minimising those aspects of Iranian policy which are known to have had a malign effect. China too, as we discussed above at paragraph 126, having made significant investments in Afghanistan, also has a potentially important and positive role to play. As Gerard Russell explained, "It might not look like stability of the kind that we originally imagined, but they do need to protect their investments".[242]

134. Regional diplomacy would also provide an opportunity to ensure that Pakistan's concerns about adverse Indian influence in Afghanistan are dealt with separately rather than via Afghan proxies. As Michael Semple told us, "It would be absolutely inappropriate to think of India being talked out of Afghanistan [...] but there have to be some guidelines about what crosses the red line in terms of constituting a threat to Pakistan. [...] The practical way probably to deal with this would be somebody taking forward a reconciliation track, particularly something like an international mediator, who would probably need a regional support group to work with them and to provide mutual reassurances".[243] Harnessing regional support, and the unique benefits that each neighbour can bring to bear, is therefore crucial, as Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles stated:

    The key question […] is how you accompany a military draw-down with a serious political process. The analogy that I have used […] 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.[244]

135. The UK has been a strong advocate of a regional (yet Afghan-led) approach to tackling Afghanistan's problems. The Government's written evidence states that the UK continues to encourage Afghanistan's neighbours and influential international actors, like Saudi Arabia, to play a constructive role in reconciliation.[245] In 2005, the UK was instrumental in setting up the Regional Economic Co-operation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA), the only regional economic initiative with Afghanistan at its centre. The UK continues to support regional co-operation in support of Afghanistan through funding the establishment of a Centre for Regional Co-operation (CRC) in the Afghan government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This Afghan-led centre is tasked with promoting economic integration between Afghanistan and the broader region.[246]

136. We conclude that the UK Government is to be commended for its advocacy of a regional approach to political reconciliation, and we recommend that the FCO continues to make the case to its allies for their wholehearted support in this respect.

The terms of a negotiated settlement

137. The ultimate shape of a potential negotiated political solution to Afghanistan's conflict is impossible to predict. However, most analysts are in agreement that there will have to be a power-sharing agreement, and constitutional or legislative changes. As a result, there are fears that this could jeopardize civil and political liberties, and the rights of women and minorities in particular.

138. The Taliban's oppression of women in Afghanistan from 1996-2001 is well documented. With the fall of the Taliban regime, some headline improvements could be seen: girls began to return to school in larger numbers, women became more visible in public life, many returned to work and the Afghan Constitution was drafted in a way designed to guarantee women equal rights and a quarter of seats in parliament. However, there are concerns that these limited improvements are in danger of receding if the Taliban and other insurgent groups who are said, in many instances, to hold similar views about women, regain power under a future negotiated settlement.[247] Oxfam GB is one of many NGOs which argue that it is vital for the UK and others to ensure that ordinary Afghan men and women's voices are effectively represented in negotiations, and that any future political settlement guarantees their rights.[248] Michael Semple told us:

    I can feed back from some discussions I have had [...] with various figures in the Taliban whom it is possible to get access to, at which I have asked [...] what is likely to be their attitude to women moving into some kind of roles—whether it be in negotiations, or into future relationships or roles in the political system? The sensible ones say quite clearly that they realise that there are bottom lines. They also generally make a point of saying that they have moved on, and that they have recognised some of their failures during their period in government.[249]

139. Giving evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary stated that the UK strongly encourages and has funded projects that encourage the participation of women in Afghan society and politics, and pointed to the improved participation of women in the peace jirga in June.[250] The issue of women's human rights in Afghanistan is an important issue and one that we will return to cover in more detail in our forthcoming inquiry into Human Rights.

140. Michael Semple told us that it would be wrong to think that "the western powers [...] will somehow be sole guarantors of the rights of Afghan women". He explained:

    The way I understand it is that the pragmatists in the Taliban would see benefits of being part of the political system and benefits of being accepted by the international community. Then you realise that they have to move on this themselves. They would probably prefer to be seen, in a sense, to be making that move themselves, rather than having their arms twisted the whole way. I think that there is a prospect for a positive outcome, but going about it the wrong way could undermine it.[251]

141. Michael Semple told us that, "They understand a lot more about the world than they are often given credit for, and they have a vision of a political settlement".[252] However, as Matt Waldman stated, the extent to which the Taliban seek administrative, as opposed to political, power is not entirely clear.[253]

Prospects for success

142. We conclude that at present the conditions for a political settlement do not exist, not least because the international community's approach is incoherent, Afghan leadership is not sufficient, the US approach is overly focused on re-integration at the expense of reconciliation and, in the resulting political vacuum, regional powers and Pakistan in particular, are forging ahead with their own agendas on reconciliation, not necessarily in the interests of Afghanistan or the wider region.

173   Ev 9  Back

174   "Quarterly report on progress in Afghanistan", Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 27 October 2010 Back

175   London Conference communiqué, January 2010 Back

176   "Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People", Asia Foundation, 9 November 2010 Back

177   Ev 9 Back

178   Ev 54 Back

179   Ev 50 Back

180   Ev 5 Back

181   The Guardian, 9 March 2009 Back

182   Q 33 [Matt Waldman] Back

183   Fotini Christia and Michael Semple, "Flipping the Taliban: how to win in Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009 Back

184   Financial Times, 5 February 2010, Irish Times, 3 June 2010  Back

185   Q 103 Back

186   Q 13 Back

187   IbidBack

188   IbidBack

189   Daily Telegraph, 13 December 2010, Guardian, 7 October 2010 Back

190   Q 7 Back

191   Q 16 Back

192   Q 7, Q 33 Back

193   IbidBack

194   Ev 50 Back

195   Ahmed Rashid, "The Way out of Afghanistan", New York Review of Books, 13 January 2011 Back

196   Q 17 Back

197   Q 106 Back

198   Q 102 Back

199   "A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan", The White House, April 2009 Back

200   "Why the US must talk to the Taliban", Washington Post, 18 March 2010 Back

201   Ev 54 [Matt Waldman] Back

202   Statement by President Obama on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, 16 December 2010 Back

203   See comments made by General Petraeus, Fox News, 25 August 2010.  Back

204   Washington Post, 23 January 2010 Back

205   Q 112 Back

206   Q 104 [Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles]; Q 7 [Michael Semple]; Q 124 [Gilles Dorronsoro] Back

207   "Why the US must talk to the Taliban", Washington Post, 18 March 2010 Back

208   IbidBack

209   IbidBack

210   See also "History is repeating itself in Afghanistan", Independent, 18 December 2010. Back

211   Q 124 Back

212   Q 120 Back

213   Q 120 Back

214   "Achieving Progress in Afghanistan: the political dimension", Meeting Transcript, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 8 July 2010 Back

215   Ev 48 Back

216   Q 96 Back

217   Ev 25 Back

218   See for example, Daily Telegraph, 26 November 2010. Back

219   Ev 56 Back

220   Ev 49 Back

221   Q 92 Back

222   Q 125 Back

223   Q 92 Back

224   Q 125 Back

225   Q 12 Back

226   Q 21 Back

227   Q 52 Back

228   Q 21 Back

229   Ev 20 Back

230   Q 85 Back

231   Q 21 Back

232   Ev 80 Back

233   Q 126 Back

234   Q 126  Back

235   Q 52 Back

236   Q 85 Back

237   Ev 50 Back

238   Q 16 Back

239   Washington Post, 13 January 2011 Back

240   Ev 20 Back

241   Ev 20 Back

242   Q 125 Back

243   Q 21 Back

244   Q 97 Back

245   Ev 10 Back

246   Ev 20 Back

247   See for example the discussion of this issue in "'The Ten-Dollar Talib' and Women's Rights - Afghan Women and the Risk of Reintegration and Reconciliation", Human Rights Watch, July 2010. Back

248   Ev w16 Back

249   Q 10 Back

250   Q 154 Back

251   Q 10 Back

252   Q 13 Back

253   Ev 52 Back

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