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

Written evidence from Professor Sultan Barakat & Mr Steven A. Zyck, Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, University of York

Recommendations for a Diplomatic Strategy in Afghanistan


The current UK and international strategy towards Afghanistan is ineffective and is unlikely to yield stability. While increased troop numbers will be beneficial in preventing substantial increases in insurgent operations, no viable strategy for improved governance or development exists (or would be likely to yield results in the face of an uncooperative and decreasingly credible government in Kabul).

A political settlement appears to be the only viable strategy for achieving stability. Yet a negotiated solution will require the realisation of a number of challenging and somewhat unlikely achievements, which are outlined below (see Figure 1 for a snapshot). These should include the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), particularly in the design of strategy and control of communications, but will require the greatest contribution, particularly in the short and mid terms, from the armed forces.


Sultan Barakat is Professor of Politics and Director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) at the University of York. He has been closely involved in Afghanistan since the late 1990s. In addition to undertaking capacity development programmes for senior Afghan officials, he also led the mid-term evaluation of the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) in 2005 and 2006 and the British Government's "Strategic Conflict Assessment" of Afghanistan in 2008. Professor Barakat is editor of Reconstructing War-Torn Societies: Afghanistan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and After the Conflict: Reconstruction and Development in the Aftermath of War (IB Tauris, 2005).

Steven A. Zyck is a current Associate of and former Research Fellow at the PRDU at the University of York. He is presently working as a contractor with the Afghanistan team at the NATO Civil-Military Fusion Centre. Mr Zyck, who formerly worked in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries for international organisations, is the author of "Former Combatant Reintegration and Fragmentation in Afghanistan" (Conflict, Security & Development, 2008) and, with Sultan Barakat, "Afghanistan's Insurgency and the Viability of a Political Settlement" (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2010).

1.  After nearly a decade of fighting the war in Afghanistan, the situation continues to decline. This descent is all the more troubling given that, in the past three years, it has continued unabated despite the re-focusing of international attention and financial, material, military and human resources upon the country. Meanwhile, Pakistan has continued to be rocked by internal conflict in the western border provinces and terrorism throughout the country; Pakistan's mounting instability has, however, been subject to sporadic and half-hearted attention despite the threat it poses to broader regional and global security. HMG's April 2009 strategy for "Af/Pak" primarily addresses Pakistan insofar as it relates to Afghanistan. We strongly believe that HMG must increase its focus upon Pakistan as a crisis and as a context of fragility in its own right. Yet, while we feel that Pakistan must be treated as a separate conflict (as well as a partner in Afghanistan's stabilisation), humility impels us to focus upon that context, Afghanistan, with which we are far more personally and professionally familiar.

2.  Progress in Afghanistan had previously been hindered by insufficient levels of resources and the channelling of resources outside of or around rather than through the Afghan Government. Crucial capabilities failed to develop early and public institutions which should deliver basic services are unable to meet their mandates or the expectations of the Afghan citizenry. It is increasingly apparent that the absence of a credible Afghan partner and senior Afghan leadership poses the greatest threat. From the start, there should have been a focus on building the capacity of strategically selected individuals throughout the Afghan administration as a means of fostering local ownership and effective governance. Capacity-building measures, including FCO-funded Chevening scholarships and fellowships, have been a beneficial but exceptionally costly and scattergun approach of enhancing skills.

3.  As a result of limited attention to individual capacity building, cultures of impunity and ineffectiveness have been permitted to develop. Key elements of the Afghan administration feel that preventing the discovery of corruption, criticising Afghanistan's foreign partners, and perpetrating electoral fraud are the most effective means of clinging to power. In such a context, the Taliban increasingly appears to the Afghan people to be a better or equally bad option. Indeed, the Taliban demonstrated greater capacity to provide local security (despite also being a source of violence), managed corruption, belatedly reigned in the poppy industry and resulting levels of addiction, exuded a sense of moral authority, and forbade (rather than pillaged) private banks.

4.  As such, there is an opportunity for the international legitimacy and resources of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRA) and the moral legitimacy of the Taliban to be combined: a negotiated settlement between the two and the institution of a power-sharing arrangement. Despite the frequency with which such a statement has been made in the course of the past one to two years, few policymakers, diplomats, or scholars have articulated how such a settlement may best be pursued and implemented. This evidence builds upon our past research and strategies into this issue and is rooted in our evolving understanding of the situation.[33]

5.  The Afghan population has increasing cause for grievance with the international intervention and with the GIRA. Its support will not be thrown behind NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or the GIRA - even if the performance of either merited such allegiance - given the threat posed by an insurgency which has essentially established itself as a powerful shadow government. Even those segments of the population pleased with reconstruction assistance, impressed by the hitherto mediocre performance of the Afghan public administration, or ideologically opposed to the insurgents' aims will not passively or actively oppose the Taliban for fear of violent reprisal. Reconstruction and development funding will not - and cannot - purchase stability in such a security context and in light of the genuine opposition which has grown throughout the Afghan population as the result of years of misplaced poppy eradication efforts as well as OEF and ISAF-inflicted civilian casualties. While reintegrating "reconcilable" insurgents may appear attractive and have a certain rhetorical charm, few such insurgents will take up such an offer due to pride or fear of retributive attacks. Additionally, the levels of assistance intended to entice opposition fighters into the Government's fold are insufficient (though many imposters may benefit).[34]

6.  The Taliban and its numerous affiliates must be brought to the negotiating table. However, they will only do so if they feel that their only other option is military defeat; even then, some will certainly resist any political settlement. As such, a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan will only be possible following the continuation and expansion of international military operations; the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) certainly have a role to play, but, as experience has demonstrated time and time again, it ultimately lacks the skills and willingness to confront the insurgency directly without massive international assistance and support. While celebrating the growth of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to 134,000 members, others reported that approximately a quarter of these were "phantom" soldiers who either did not exist or who were absent without leave (AWOL). As such, this war will continue to be fought and won or lost primarily based on the performance of the international troops in the country. Even then, maintained or increased numbers of troops on the ground still may not have the geographical coverage, operational mandate, or contextual familiarity to win the war.

7.  If the troops do prevail in making insurgency membership too dangerous for most Afghans to consider - and if significant proportions of its leadership are eliminated - then the Taliban may consider entering into negotiations if, indeed, it is able, at the very least, to convince its insurgency partners in the Haqqani network and Hizb-e Islami to do so. Even then, a credible offer of negotiation must be (a) extended, (b) accepted within a specific timeframe and according to mutually acceptable conditions, and (c) recognized fully and unconditionally by the international community. Such an offer must be genuine and not a political manoeuvre intended to appeal to the anti-war populace in troop-supplying nations or to make the Afghan Government appear conciliatory in the eyes of its international financiers. At that point, negotiations must ultimately be implemented successfully - carefully shepherded and not thrown off track by security or political incidents - and be backed up by a credible offer of enforcement by a neutral-as-possible third party. The individuals involved must be carefully chosen and genuinely committed to an effective resolution of the conflict rather than to scoring points with their constituencies, as has happened so commonly in other protracted conflicts around the world.

8.  This process, outlined in Figure 1, essentially requires that at least eight achievements be reached in a timely manner without being thrown off course by spoiler violence or opposition from key Afghan and international stakeholders, including HMG, the US Government, Afghan political parties, international terrorist networks (including their financiers) and the Pakistani Government (and, specifically, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency). The plausibility that these will be achieved is already slim and is further undercut by the dissipating engagement of ISAF's troop supplying members.

Figure 1.

Eight Achievements Necessary for Afghanistan's Stabilisation

9.  If these achievements are not achieved, or if it becomes apparent that one has not been achieved or is unfeasible, HMG and its international supporters may need to come to the conclusion, prematurely reached by some, that the intervention in Afghanistan will never result in stability. At such time, HMG may have no choice but to limit its ambitions and strive for a next-best solution, namely the achievement of a perpetual state of neither war nor peace in which insurgents engage in continued attacks while being pursued by the ANSF as well as by drones and small cadres of special operations forces from the United States and other willing countries.

10.  Such an eventuality would require continued support for Pakistan in the form of development assistance and military aid to ensure that it does not allow insurgents the opportunity to use Afghanistan as a staging point for the destabilisation of Pakistan. Drone patrols and airstrikes along the border between the two countries would need to be stepped up, as the administration of US President Barack Obama has already done, and would need to be accompanied by intensive narcotics and financial interdiction efforts. Governments in countries through which Afghan poppies are smuggled would need to be provided with unprecedented incentives to disallow and strongly counter the transport of poppies, opiates, and precursor chemicals (which allow for processing of raw poppies into opiates). To counter the effects of such activities, development assistance - or, more likely, basic relief aid - would need to continue flowing to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of Central and South Asia.


11.  Despite the limited chance that the eight achievements above will be attained, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the entirety of HMG's intervention in Afghanistan, including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Stabilisation Unit, must be orientated around just such an outcome. The FCO, in particular, will need to ensure that the UK's unequivocal military commitment to Afghanistan is fully communicated to the Afghan people and the insurgency, which are both increasingly aware of the opposition to the conflict in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere (and which hence predict that foreign forces will depart quickly). Second, while emphasising the military campaign, the FCO will also be required to coordinate a message - also communicated by top British military commanders - that the international community is committed to supporting and honouring any negotiations and political settlements pursued by the GIRA. Such a message will be received more fully and will be viewed credible if Western Governments do not sacrifice their trust in the Islamic world through provocative acts from highly-publicised Quran burnings to rabid and mean-spirited opposition to mosque-building and burqa-wearing. This non-coercive, diplomatic strategy should be delivered, not at press conferences and in the international press, but by local spokespersons or British-Afghans or British Muslims.

12.  Furthermore, the FCO must begin to develop, with input from its diplomatic corps and range of experts throughout Britain, a strategy by which the GIRA can propose and shepherd negotiations leading to a political settlement. Such inputs can help to ensure that negotiations are not presented as a form of "take it or leave it" or as a "with us or against us" ultimatum, but as a means of dialogue through which the most unbeneficial forms of confrontation may be avoided. Disposed elements must be identified and discrete talks utilising diplomatic channels should be pursued. While such negotiations must be led by the Afghan Government, the FCO should play a key role, based on its experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, in supporting Afghan leaders in designing their strategy, conducting negotiations, establishing neutral-as-possible implementation, and monitoring and enforcing arrangements. One lesson which the UK can bring to negotiations in Afghanistan - and which both the GIRA and the Taliban-led insurgency realise - is the integral role to be played by regional powers and other Islamic countries. While much attention has been paid thus far to the potentially negative role played by Pakistani elements in Afghanistan, there has been inadequate consideration given to the promising role which Iran can play in Afghanistan. Indeed, Iran may be the one country with the most to lose from a destabilised Afghanistan and it should be viewed as a partner in peace, rather than an inherently hostile source of insecurity. The same message applies to many Arab countries, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar and Kuwait, which have recent historical ties to all factions within Afghanistan and which could be viewed both as a neutral facilitator of a political settlement and as significant providers of development financing.

13.  The UK may also make other contributions beyond the scope of the eight integral achievements. These may help to support the pursuit of an effective political settlement, but are more orientated around reconstruction and development. Potential contributions, for example, should focus on the need to foster increased professionalism and capacity within the Afghan Government at all levels. Such an outcome must be understood as a generational process not necessarily achievable to any meaningful degree within the coming few years, though groundwork may be laid. For instance, the plethora of capacity-building programmes implemented within Afghanistan has not been adequately studied; we do not, essentially, know what does and does not work. The UK should finance a major evaluation of such initiatives and then fully support a multi-donor programme to establish a series of capacity-development academies throughout the country. These must be run by capable service providers and should move beyond the costly, limited-output, and low-impact approaches previously developed by some UN agencies, NGOs, consulting firms and others within Afghanistan.

14.  Furthermore, DFID may wish to take the lead in designing a more comprehensive and meaningful package of assistance for "reconciled" insurgents than is currently being discussed. The UN agencies previously involved in demobilisation and reintegration (D&R) in Afghanistan have shown themselves to have little technical expertise in this area and to dedicate more than half of all donor-provided funds to overhead costs. DFID must ensure that the mediocrity which was allowed to flourish under the 2003-2006 Afghanistan's New Beginnings Programme (ANBP) is not repeated. Indeed, DFID may wish - taking D&R as a starting point - to put forward a far broader reintegration package which targets all boys and men between the ages of 12 and 35 in the country. This group, in particular, must become awash in development assistance, educational opportunities, micro-finance programmes, agricultural development schemes and other livelihoods-orientated interventions. If not, the current generation of young men may grow up devoid of options and serve as fodder for the insurgency, not only in the course of the next three to five years, but also far into the future. Such assistance must be given in a relief mentality that is orientated more around consumption than sustainability. Large sums will be lost because of waste and corruption, though the alternative - using development approaches which emphasise beneficiary contributions and the provision of technical, rather than material, assistance - will take too long to implement with too high overhead costs (while still not likely achieving anything approximating sustainability). Development, it should be said, is far better at preventing conflicts than at ending them.


15.  There are a range of lessons which may be learned from Afghanistan (as well as from Pakistan). First and most important, however, is that elite bargains rarely, if ever, work. Afghanistan was a victor's peace which excluded the toppled regime. In doing so - and in not providing sufficient numbers of troops to guarantee security on the ground - the intervening powers ensured that spoiler violence would ensue. Such a mistake should not be repeated and the international community would be wise to recognise that they must work with those actors on the ground that are deemed to be legitimate by the local population. Attempting to impose officials who "we" believe are legitimate is bound to fail.

16.  Furthermore, the UK would be wise to put less faith in the political centre when intervening into future post-conflict contexts. For operational ease and visibility, the international community so commonly stresses approaches which focus upon capitals and elites. It is easier, after all, to craft a healthcare policy and appoint a minister of health than to deploy a nationwide system of medicine. Elections are held and central ministries are erected years before the state is actually able to deliver services on the ground. Such an approach is frustrating for local populations, which are more concerned with local improvements than with national political developments. Furthermore, a focus upon a narrow handful of elites at the national level means that, should these individuals fail, the entire intervention is unlikely to succeed. In Afghanistan, the UK and others recognise that they put all of their faith in a single individual who is growing increasingly unwilling to pursue even the appearance of integrity and managerial competence.

17.  Finally, the UK - in its development policy, in particular - would be wise to develop intervention strategies which tackle the priorities of the local population. One can understand how the Afghan population might negatively view an international intervention primarily concerned with governance, elections, political parties, gender relations, and counter-insurgency strategies while rural communities and urban centres lack safe water, reliable electricity supplies, irrigation canals, sufficient jobs, good schools or basic safety. HMG institutions may wish to consider the assumption that what "they" want is so different from what "we" would want in the aftermath of a decades-long war. Indeed, priorities are commonly one and the same, and HMG may find its post-conflict assistance far more applicable if it begins with the same sorts of aid which the British public most urgently required in the aftermath of the Second World War.

6 October 2010

33   Sultan Barakat & Steven A. Zyck, "Afghanistan's Insurgency and the Viability of a Political Settlement", Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33:3 (February 2010). The authors have also contributed to an earlier strategy-formulation process for HMG; see Sultan Barakat et al., A Strategic Conflict Assessment of Afghanistan, a report of HMG's/DFID's "Understanding Afghanistan" initiative (November 2008). Back

34   Indeed, as with the earlier disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process targeting the Northern Alliance, the levels of assistance being proposed by UN agencies and others equal less than US$5,000 per combatant. If the previous DDR programme - which received similar levels of funding - is any indication, only US$700 of this assistance will ultimately reach reintegrated insurgents. Also, as with the previous DDR process, anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of all "reconciled" fighters will be fraudulent or non-existent. See Steven A. Zyck, "Former Combatant Reintegration and Fragmentation in Contemporary Afghanistan", Conflict, Security & Development 9:1 (April 2009). Back

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