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.
- 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?
- 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.
- ¾ The
US has still not made its mind up about the Taliban: "part
of the fabric of society", or a "scourge" and a
- 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.
- 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
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
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.
UK FOREIGN POLICY
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:
- 70% said government officials in their area were
profiting from drug trafficking;
- 64% said local officials were linked to the insurgency;
- 74% worried about feeding their families;
- 68% said NATO was failing to protect the local
- 70% said military operations in their area were
bad for the Afghan people; a figure that rose to 99% in Marjah
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
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."
UK GOVERNMENT EFFORT
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.
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