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

Written evidence from James Fergusson

James Fergusson is an Edinburgh-based author and journalist who began writing about the Af-Pak region in 1996. He has written three books on Afghanistan. His second, A Million Bullets, a study of the British deployment in Helmand in 2006, was the British Army's Military Book of the Year (2009). His latest book, Taliban, examines the origins of that movement and argues that it is now time to negotiate a settlement with its leadership. This is the second time that he has given evidence to the FASC on this subject.


  1. ¾  The regional approach is crucial. But with Special Envoy Sherard Cowper-Coles no longer in post, who is now driving the UK's Af-Pak policy?
  2. ¾  Many senior British figures believe it is time to start trying to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, and that this outcome is inevitable. Yet official policy is simply to go on supporting the US's military strategy - even while this is demonstrably stuttering.
  3. ¾  The US has still not made its mind up about the Taliban: "part of the fabric of society", or a "scourge" and a "cancer"?
  4. ¾  The West has so far failed to reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban. Far more co-ordination and purpose are required if negotiations are ever to succeed.
  5. ¾  It is past time for civilian agencies to take back the initiative on negotiation. The UK could have a key mediating role to play in the settlement - and should perhaps make better use of its influence with the US to help shape this outcome.


1.  In January 2009 Richard Holbrooke was appointed as the US's first ever "Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan." This was an important, if belated, acknowledgement that Afghanistan's troubles require a regional solution. The Afghan Taliban will not be defeated militarily without Pakistan's help, and nor are they likely to be persuaded to the negotiating table unless Pakistan is included in that process. It was therefore entirely appropriate that Britain quickly followed America's lead, recasting the Kabul Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles in an equivalent role, as Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

2.  However, Sir Sherard was removed from his post this summer, reportedly for speaking out in favour of talks with the Taliban; and he has apparently not been replaced. Instead, the focus of senior British representation in the region has shifted, with the appointment of Mark Sedwill as the NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan.

3.  This seems a pity. Pakistan remains integral to a solution in Afghanistan; nothing has changed in this respect, and Anglo-Pakistani relations are as important as ever to British interests. (They certainly need careful handling: consider Prime Minister Cameron's remark in July that Pakistan "looks both ways" on terrorism; or Pakistani prickliness over British flood relief efforts in August; or the cricket match-rigging scandal last month). Yet who, now, is really in charge of the important "Af-Pak" brief?

4.  Relations between Pakistan and NATO hardly seem better. Despite NATO claims that they and Pakistan have "significantly expanded political relations and practical cooperation" since 2005, Islamabad recently blocked a NATO fuel supply convoy in retaliation for a friendly fire incident in which three Pakistani soldiers were allegedly killed by Coalition aircraft.

5.  Sir Sherard's argument that the Coalition now needs to negotiate a compromise with the Afghan Taliban leadership is a strong one, and I support it. I laid out the case for negotiations in a lengthy cover article for Prospect magazine last month (see:

6.  There is a widespread view among senior British officials, civilian and military, that the time for talks is nigh. For instance, Sir David Richards, the CGS, told the BBC in June: "I think there's no reason why we shouldn't be looking at that sort of thing [talking to the Taliban] pretty soon."

7.  But pursuing talks is still not official policy in Afghanistan. Instead, Britain has committed itself to supporting the American strategy. Britain is just one member of an international coalition in Afghanistan that is dominated by America. We do not have (nor are we in a position to have) our own, distinct foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Our policy rather is to support the American policy, and to hope that it works. Britain has adopted what one senior government official described to me recently as a "wait and see" posture. To judge the effectiveness of UK foreign policy in the region is to judge the effectiveness of US policy, therefore.


8.  The heart of the US strategy remains General McChrystal's "surge." This is designed to dominate the city and environs of Kandahar - the spiritual capital of the Pashtuns and the birthplace of the Taliban - and in so doing, to place the US and her Coalition allies in a position of strength from which to negotiate with the insurgency. The military surge got off to a bad start in Marjah in Helmand, which is still not pacified; and McChrystal, the architect of the strategy, is no longer in post following his firing in the summer. The push towards Kandahar, now ongoing under General Petraeus, appears to be well behind schedule; NATO troops are facing stiff opposition as they advance.

9.   President Obama's accompanying "civilian surge" has sought to eradicate corruption and to establish proper governance. Neither goal has yet been achieved. Kabul was recently rocked by a major banking scandal that may yet engulf the President's own brother. In the district of Marjah, where General McChrystal promised to introduce a "government in a box," governance is still failing, according to polling in the region in June by ICOS, (the International Council on Security and Development). ICOS's findings are worth repeating:

  1. 70% said government officials in their area were profiting from drug trafficking;
  2. 64% said local officials were linked to the insurgency;
  3. 74% worried about feeding their families;
  4. 68% said NATO was failing to protect the local population; and
  5. 70% said military operations in their area were bad for the Afghan people; a figure that rose to 99% in Marjah itself.

10.  Meanwhile, the program to train up new security forces - the key to NATO's exit strategy - is in severe difficulties, particularly the program to train the notoriously corrupt Afghan National Police. Last December, the annualized attrition rate of the ANP was said to be about 100%. The US's Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who runs the ANP training program, has raised their pay to the same level as Taliban recruits - a move that has slowed but failed to stop this rate of attrition, which was still running at nearly 50% in July.

11.  The US strategy is clearly not working as it should. President Obama is committed to reviewing his strategy at the end of the year. Those hoping for a change of direction are likely to be disappointed, however. Petraeus has moved recently to downplay expectations, calling the strategy review little more than "a mid-course assessment." The White House, too, has indicated that it wants "fine tuning, rather than changing the channel."

12.  This sounds like bad news in particular for those hoping for a switch of emphasis to a civilian-led, negotiated settlement with the Taliban. American thinking on this remains incoherent and contradictory. In Islamabad last March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly described the Taliban as a "scourge" and a "cancer." Yet the following day, he said the Taliban were "a part of the fabric of society these days." It cannot be both! General Petraeus, similarly, has publicly encouraged President Karzai in his efforts to negotiate with the Taliban leadership. Yet the US is not yet ready to hold direct talks with the Taliban. At the same time US Special Forces, with Obama's full approval, have stepped up their "decapitation" program of targeted assassinations of Taliban leaders.

13.  Quetta has not unnaturally concluded from all this that the US is not serious about wanting to negotiate. The Taliban leadership have repeatedly and consistently refused to deal with Karzai, whom they regard as a Western stooge and irredeemably corrupt. Only direct talks between Quetta and Washington are likely to have any value, senior ex-Taliban figures say; but the prospect of these remains far off while we continue to kill the people with whom we will eventually have to negotiate with. (The self-defeating nature of the decapitation strategy was spelled out by Major-General Andrew Mackay who told his staff in 2008: "We're at risk of killing the Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness of the Taliban.")

14.  Influencing Washington's thinking on direct talks with Quetta should be central to the UK's Af-Pak strategy. 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. For reasons of history, the UK may also be particularly well-placed to help mediate these talks. "The British are special to us," as a senior ex-Taliban put it to me in March. "Our relationship with you was so good during the Jihad. You have been coming here for 170 years. We feel we know you."


15.  In a keynote speech in March 2010, Foreign Secretary David Miliband remarked: "Now is the time for the Afghans to pursue a political settlement with as much vigour and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort... Dialogue is not appeasement, and [granting the Taliban] political space is not the same as veto power or domination."

16.  This enlightened speech, delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was clearly aimed at Washington. Was Washington listening? The speech was, of course, Miliband's last as Foreign Secretary in America. The new Foreign Secretary has spoken of a "solid but not slavish" Anglo-American relationship - although what this will mean in practice in terms of British Af-Pak policy is not yet clear.

17.  The effectiveness of the FCO on the ground in Afghanistan has been much debated, particularly within the Army. Civilian-military co-operation in Helmand, particularly, has often been fraught. The military, always in a hurry, feel the civilian agencies (essentially the FCO and DFID) could have done/could do more; the civilian agencies retort that they have a duty of care to their employees, and that the military misunderstand the nature of sustainable development.

18.  Since 2006, Britain's engagement in Afghanistan has been dominated by military rather than civilian thinking. This is the opposite of what happened in Malaya, Britain's last successful foreign COIN mission - the lessons of which the UK seems to have forgotten.

19.  According to the "comprehensive approach" adopted by Britain in Afghanistan, the military and civilian agencies are supposed to work closely together. The way the military and government relate to and understand each other urgently needs to be improved if the comprehensive approach is to have a chance of working in future.[12]

6 October 2010

12   Mr Fergusson appended to his written evidence an article he wrote for Prospect Magazine, Issue 174, September 2010, "Meet the Taliban - not as bad as you think", together with the editor's letter in the same issue. Back

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