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

Written evidence from Matt Waldman, Independent analyst


1.  NATO forces are not winning in Afghanistan. The insurgency is expanding and becoming more powerful and more deadly. The majority of Taliban are neither extremists nor mercenaries: despite the use of extreme tactics, most insurgents believe they are fighting a just war against aggressive invaders and a degenerate proxy regime.

2.  Counter-insurgency in Afghanistan cannot succeed without two elements essential for success: a legitimate, functioning Government, and insurgents that are deprived of external sanctuary and support. Transition - efforts to build Afghan forces and transfer responsibilities to them - faces major obstacles and will take longer than anticipated.

3.  Despite some improvements, there continue to be major constraints in the effectiveness of international assistance to Afghanistan. In particular, it is impeded by the drive for rapid physical results, lack of Afghan ownership, and overuse of contractors and consultants. Operational rules heavily constrain the effectiveness of UK and other diplomats. A highly challenging counter-insurgency campaign, which requires non-military efforts that match those on the battlefield, will not be won by fluctuating personnel who are detached from the population and excessively shielded from risk.

4.  Efforts to "reintegrate" insurgents are unlikely to be successful due to widespread mistrust of government officials, the strength and reach of the insurgency, and because the programme does not address the principal reasons why Afghans fight.

5.  Most Afghans support talks with the Taliban, and some insurgent objectives converge with wider Afghan and international interests. Given this, and the constraints of counter-insurgency and transition, the potential for negotiations with the Taliban should be explored. But dialogue is blocked by international incoherence and insurgent mistrust of the coalition, which is compounded by the military surge. The process requires careful handling. It is jeopardised by numerous potential spoilers on all sides. There are questions about the feasibility of power-sharing, and an agreement could lead to constraints on civil and political freedoms as well as the rights of women and minorities. To endure, any peace process and prospective settlement must be widely seen to be inclusive and just. Any settlement must also seek to address some of the root causes of the conflict, especially the abuse of power.

6.  Largely due to its rivalry with India, Pakistan provides sanctuary and considerable support to the Afghan Taliban, which it sees as an instrument for achieving strategic influence. Talks require Pakistan's support, but giving its officials excessive influence over the process 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.


7.  This statement seeks to highlight, briefly, issues related to the effectiveness of the UK and other foreign powers in Afghanistan about which there are often misplaced assumptions. Given Afghanistan's complexity, the observations forgo detail and nuance, for the sake of lucidity. It addresses: conflict conditions and the Taliban; constraints of transition and counter-insurgency; aid effectiveness; practical constraints on effective UK engagement; reintegration; reconciliation; and Pakistan (as it relates to Afghanistan).


8.  NATO is not winning, or even beginning to win in Afghanistan. For each of the last four years military officials and politicians have said that they are starting to turn the corner in the conflict. In each of the last four years the insurgency has grown larger, more powerful, and more deadly.

9.  Over the four years from 2006 to 2009 the number of insurgent attacks on Afghan and international forces has increased by 48, 52 and 43% respectively.[13] (This is reflected in the chart below, which shows actual and attempted insurgent attacks against the Afghan Government or foreign forces from 2004-2010.) In the first half of 2010, there were some 3,500 insurgent attacks, up by 51% on the same period for 2009.[14] This August ISAF recorded 4,919 "kinetic events" (security incidents, predominantly involving insurgents), an average of over 150 incidents a day, which is up 49% on last August.[15]

Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan per week, 2004-2010; source: NATO.

10.  Insurgents are using increasingly effective asymmetric tactics against coalition forces. From 2006-2009 international military casualties increased by 21, 27 and 77%.[16] There were 489 coalition deaths in the first eight months of 2010, up by 58% on the same period for 2009.[17]

11.  Over the last three years civilian casualties have increased by 39 and 14%.[18] (Comparative figures are not available prior to 2007.) In the first half of 2010 there were a reported 1,271 civilian casualties (mainly due to indiscriminate attacks by insurgents), a 21% increase on the same period for 2009.

12.  Insurgents are conducting a systematic campaign of threats and intimidation against the population. In the first half of 2010 insurgents assassinated an average one civilian per day, usually due to their actual or perceived association with the Afghan Government. News reports suggest that in Kandahar alone there are currently an average of four or five such killings a day.

13.  The insurgents have expanded their presence from the south and south-east, to parts of the north, centre and west, and they now have control or influence in over half of the country. Government officials can barely access one-third of the country and there are districts outside government control in almost all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. In the first half of 2010 there were 14 provinces in which there were over 100 insurgent attacks, and another eight provinces in which there were over 50 attacks.[19] And as the Taliban have extended their territorial presence they have also expanded their rudimentary structures of governance and justice.

14.  The Afghan insurgency comprises seven main groups, which are supplemented, variably, by foreign militants. There is considerable segmentation within, and mistrust between, different insurgent groups, and an uneasy relationship between field commanders and the Pakistan-based leadership. The Quetta Shura-led Taliban is by far the largest bloc, which also comprises various groups, but is relatively hierarchical and cohesive. Links between the movement and al-Qaeda are minimal. On the whole, insurgents do not appear to be popular with the Afghan population, but in many areas they are seen as preferable to the Afghan Government. They are fatigued, and have been weakened by special forces' operations, but they remain confident, and have no shortage of manpower or resources.

15.  Despite false and contradictory claims by some western officials, the majority of Taliban insurgents are neither extremists nor mercenaries. Many groups use extreme tactics, including organised violence against civilians; and social and economic deprivation helps to explain why foot-soldiers fight. But most Talibs are fighting what they consider to be a just war against aggressive invaders and a degenerate, proxy regime. They have multiple motivations, which usually involve: retaliation against perceived military aggression (especially airstrikes that kill civilians, or abusive raids and detentions); resistance to a perceived foreign invasion and threat to Afghan and Islamic values; opposition to abuse of power and impunity; and exclusion from power or resources, especially at local level. Recruitment is reinforced by expediency and opportunism.

16.  Some western officials assume that Taliban objectives are intrinsically antithetical to western interests. Some goals would rightly be considered objectionable by parts of Afghan society and the international community, such as further constraints on the rights, freedoms and opportunities of women and girls, or extreme punishments for violations of Islamic social codes. But other stated goals, such as the withdrawal of foreign forces, enforcement of law and order, and better governance, are consistent with Afghan and international aspirations and interests. The extent to which the Taliban seek administrative, as opposed to political, power is not entirely clear.


17.  Two principal strategies govern current operations in Afghanistan: transition and counter-insurgency. The former will be difficult to accomplish in the anticipated timeframe; the latter may simply not be achievable.

18.  'Transition', meaning efforts to build Afghan forces and transfer responsibilities to them, faces huge obstacles. The current goal is to generate 171,600 troops, and 134,000 police by October 2011. Sustaining a force of this size, however, would heavily depend on significant, long-term foreign assistance. The annual cost of salaries alone is likely to exceed the Government's total annual revenue. International efforts to build Afghan forces begun in earnest only in 2007 and have prioritised force quantity over quality. Given weaknesses in logistics, training, and leadership there are serious questions about the capability of the Afghan Army to conduct independent operations. Afghan police are poorly equipped and widely seen as ineffective, corrupt or abusive. Both the police and army suffer from a high attrition rate (including casualties, desertions and discharges it amounts to 16 and 23%, respectively), which poses continual recruitment and training challenges.[20]

19.  Separately, counter-insurgency in Afghanistan will not succeed without two of the sine-qua-nons for success: a legitimate, functioning Government, and insurgents that are deprived of external sanctuary and support. The Afghan Government is corrupt and ineffective; its officials are often seen as unjust, predatory and benefitting from impunity. In many parts of the country there is widespread loathing for officials. At the same time, insurgents benefit from safe havens in Pakistan and a significant level of support from parts of the Pakistan intelligence service and military.

20.  Afghanistan suffers from a ruling mafia elite and industrial-scale corruption. Yet reportedly no senior Afghan government figure has been successfully prosecuted for corruption, and current investigations have stalled.[21] This is hardly surprising: for years the West has not only failed to challenge corruption, but has channelled millions of dollars to Afghan power-holders it deems politically expedient, regardless of their records. Many Afghan officials, including those suspected of corruption, continue to receive large sums of money from various international actors, including the US Central Intelligence Agency.[22] Graft has been compounded by the allocation of vast reconstruction funds to Afghan and western contracting companies that are wasteful or ineffective, with limited oversight. These factors have led to a conspicuous and increasing inequality between a rich elite and impoverished population.

21.  There has been a colossal failure by the international coalition to empathise with ordinary Afghans and act accordingly. Consider that many Afghans, especially in southern Afghanistan, are profoundly Islamic, conservative, and have an understandable mistrust of foreign forces. In their perception western forces, garrisoned in fortified compounds, launch attacks which kill, injure or antagonise Afghan civilians (often without proper, visible accountability or redress); collude in the empowerment and enrichment of abusive strongmen and a corrupt regime; maladminister assistance funds; and herald the commencement of their departure. Most Afghans live in difficult conditions and will accept what support they can get, but in light of the above considerations, and in the face of systematic Taliban intimidation, it is increasingly unrealistic to expect western soldiers to win Afghan hearts and minds.

22.  This is underscored by countless discussions this author has had with ordinary Afghans which suggest that a majority of the population no longer believes that the coalition actually wants to defeat the insurgents. The explanations for this vary but they are often connected to the failures of such a powerful military coalition, America's on-going support to the Pakistan military, whom they know are supporting the Taliban, or America's alleged ambition for regional dominance and resources. However mistaken the scepticism of foreign intentions may be, it is deeply entrenched and spreading, making it even more difficult for foreign soldiers to win the support of the population.


23.  There have been improvements in health and education services, and many rural areas have benefitted from community-based development programmes. The capacity of certain ministries is improving. But there continue to be major constraints in the effectiveness of international development assistance. Three significant factors, described below, are the drive for rapid physical results, lack of Afghan ownership, and overuse of contractors and consultants.

24.  Aid has suffered from a perpetual short-termism. The complex, challenging and insecure environment requires lengthy project timeframes. Yet foreign donor contracts tend to be short-term, and implementing agencies often face pressure to deliver rapid results. To achieve social and economic sustainability it is essential to build the capacity of Afghan individuals and institutions, rather than focusing predominantly on physical capital.

25.  An essential ingredient for successful development is "ownership" - the buy in or active participation and engagement of those involved. It is required both nationally and locally, and helps to ensure that aid is relevant, builds capacities and has a substantial, lasting effect. Yet much aid to Afghanistan has been supply- rather than demand-driven, which undermines efforts to achieve ownership. This has led to projects that seek to replicate western models of development that have little or no relevance to Afghanistan. The extensive use of foreign soldiers or contracting companies to deliver aid has also limited the potential for achieving local ownership.

26.  Private contractors are essential for reconstruction, but many make huge profits, often through several tiers of sub-contracts, while delivering mixed or unsatisfactory results. Local contracting companies, in particular, are seen as wasteful, corrupt and delivering low quality work. Expatriate consultants are also essential for technical assistance and capacity-building, but many are insufficiently experienced or qualified, and absorb costs that are wholly disproportionate to their value-added. Concerted efforts by foreign donors to address these issues could significantly enhance the impact of aid and potentially improve the long-term prospects for stability.


27.  UK ability to influence events in Afghanistan is extremely limited. At this stage in the conflict it is difficult for any foreign actor to achieve major shifts in direction, and what foreign influence there is lies principally with the US.

28.  Nevertheless, UK influence is greatly diminished by operating practices that heavily constrain our personnel. British diplomats are expected to conduct sophisticated, in-depth analysis of Afghan affairs; to build trust with, and influence, key partners; and to support and oversee major assistance programmes. Though often of high-calibre, it is difficult for diplomats to accomplish these tasks under current conditions. Most live in heavily fortified compounds with little access to the field, and have minimal contact with Afghans. Tours are generally for one year, rarely more than two, and are disrupted by too frequent rest breaks out of country (two weeks in every eight, not including holiday). Few are fully trained in local languages: reportedly, just six UK diplomats have been trained in Pashtu, the language of the insurgency-affected south and east, and of the roughly 160 diplomats at the Embassy, only three speak Pashtu or Dari fluently.[23] Similar constraints apply to countless other foreign experts, diplomats and officials. (They also apply to expatriate NGO workers and analysts, but such individuals are not engaged in counter-insurgency.)

29.  Given these constraints, civilian achievements are impressive. But a highly challenging counter-insurgency campaign, which by definition requires non-military efforts which match those on the battlefield, will not be won by fluctuating personnel who are detached from the population and excessively shielded from risk.

30.  Impediments to transition, counter-insurgency and foreign assistance have led policy-makers to turn their attention to other policy areas, such as reintegration and reconciliation.


31.  Considerable emphasis has been placed by the coalition on the new Peace and Reintegration Programme, which offers economic incentives and opportunities, including vocational training and community projects in agriculture or reconstruction, to persuade insurgents to desist from violence. A 'High Peace Council' is being established, along with provincial and district level committees, to oversee and direct the programme.

32.  Despite commendable efforts by ISAF and Afghan officials involved, the plan faces severe challenges of implementation. The programme relies heavily on local government officials that insurgents are unlikely to trust. It envisages large-scale projects but the Government has little presence or capacity outside district centres. It will be especially difficult to implement in Taliban-dominated areas, where it is most relevant, and insurgents are likely to target participants or their families.

33.  There are indications that insurgents are tired of fighting, and recently a number of insurgent groups in the north and west have either surrendered or expressed an interest in reintegration. Thus, if implemented incrementally, by competent, credible officials (of whom there are few), the programme stands a chance of achieving small successes.

34.  However, many potential "reintegrees" doubt that the Government will fulfil its promises of assistance or protection. Moreover, the programme does not address the principal reasons why Afghans fight, as noted above, such as the abuse of power and the perceived aggression of foreign forces. It is therefore unlikely that many fighters will abandon the insurgency, and the number who do so is likely to be matched or exceeded by the number of new recruits. The priority is to ensure that the programme does not exacerbate the conflict or undermine future possibilities for reintegration. Sibghatullah Mojadidi's Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which the programme replaces, was so corrupt and ineffective that it diminished the prospects for insurgent reintegration.


35.  There is international incoherence on the issue of "reconciliation". 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.

36.  Assessing the risks, opportunities and implications of negotiations with insurgents is acutely difficult. That said, there are major flaws and constraints of counter-insurgency and transition; an increasing number of western policy-makers see the current course as politically and financially unsustainable; and the idea of talks is widely supported by the Afghan population. In addition, there is a degree of convergence of Taliban, Afghan and international interests, especially in terms of the presence of foreign troops, Afghan sovereignty, law and order, and arguably, governance.

37.  Thus, the international community should ensure greater coherence on "reconciliation" and actively seek to facilitate government-Taliban dialogue. For talks to begin, the international community, in particular the US, needs to demonstrate a genuine interest in talks. It should modify its insistence on stringent preconditions which may be blocking talks altogether. But the process should proceed with caution: a rush to negotiate would be self-defeating and any negotiations process would involve major risks and challenges.

38.  Presently the biggest obstacle to talks is mistrust between the warring parties. Confidence-building measures, such as removing former Taliban figures from the UN blacklist, have been unilateral and comparatively insignificant. The coalition's military surge appears to be intensifying the conflict, and compounding enmity between the parties, and is therefore reducing the prospects of negotiations. Mistrust is reinforced by the coalition's emphasis on the reintegration of fighters, rather than genuine, high- or mid-level talks.

39.  The process could be disrupted by powerful spoilers within the Government, political factions, the insurgency, or the region: strategies are required to ensure they are integrated, marginalised or contained. There are numerous questions about the form, scope, and guiding principles of the process; identity of mediators; and even which actors are represented in talks given the segmentation and fragmentation of the parties.

40.  Negotiations could ultimately lead to a power-sharing agreement, but implementation would be highly challenging, especially due to multifarious factional and other power struggles, at local, national and regional levels. An agreement could involve constitutional or legislative changes that jeopardise civil and political liberties, and the rights of women and minorities. It could also provoke a backlash by groups who fear losing their current power.

41.  For legitimacy and viability, any settlement must be both inclusive and just: it should therefore seek to reflect the aspirations of Afghanistan's diverse society. It should also seek to address underlying causes of the conflict, especially the abuse of power. It must be reinforced by genuine peace-building and reconciliation efforts to build better relations between hostile groups.


42.  Due to its latent conflict with India, parts of the Pakistani military and ISI have long aspired to significant influence, or "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. They are anxious about what is perceived as a strong Indian presence in the country and a Kabul-New Delhi alliance. This is reinforced by concerns about the disputed Durand Line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with an enduring insurgency in Balochistan. They see the Taliban as an instrument of strategic influence, and therefore provide them with sanctuary and significant support. This puts Pakistan in the powerful position of a potential facilitator or spoiler of negotiations.

43.  In early 2010 the ISI arrested the Taliban's supreme military commander, Mullah Baradar—who is believed to have had independent contacts with the Karzai regime—as well as other members of the Taliban leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura. The arrests were a demonstration by Pakistani officials that they would obstruct talks unless they were fully involved in the process. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that negotiations could succeed without Pakistan's backing.

44.  There are indications that the ISI and military are inclined to support negotiations in Afghanistan. They are increasingly concerned about a possible future alliance between Afghan insurgents and the Pakistani Taliban, who could benefit from "reverse strategic depth" inside Afghanistan.

45.  However, given the longstanding role of Pakistan's military and ISI in supporting insurgents, especially the Haqqani network, their inclusion in talks must be handled carefully. It requires a difficult balance to be struck between expediency and Afghan sovereignty. If Pakistan believes its influence is insufficient, it will not support the process, yet the perception of excessive influence could provoke opposition inside Afghanistan or countermeasures by neighbouring countries.

46.  The best means to bring about Pakistan's constructive engagement is to address the underlying causes of its conduct, especially the perceived threat from India. Ultimately, this depends on improved relations between the two adversaries, which requires persistent encouragement, pressure, and support from the international community. It could be reinforced by more effective use of US incentives and disincentives in Pakistan; modifications and perhaps a diminution in the scope of India's presence in Afghanistan; and, conceivably, Afghanistan's commitment to geo-political nonalignment.

47.  Equally, any negotiations process must involve consultation and engagement with other states in the region—not least India, Iran, Russia, and China—who are manoeuvring to protect their interests in anticipation of US withdrawal. It will require concerted efforts to identify, and as far as reasonably possible, accommodate their legitimate geo-political interests.


48.  The outlook for coalition forces in Afghanistan is worse than often portrayed by officials. There are major constraints on existing strategies, especially counter-insurgency and transition, the insurgency continues to grow, and some analysts fear a new civil war.

49.  Too many western officials see the Afghan conflict as a Manichean struggle. Neither side is benign. Arguably, the repugnance of Taliban ideology is matched by the degeneracy of the Government, and Taliban-al-Qaeda links are exaggerated.

50.  Foreign powers should seek to improve state-building and transition efforts, and maintain a robust military presence. But they must also support direct or indirect talks with the insurgency, as part of a wider, inclusive political process, reinforced by efforts to mitigate Pakistan-India hostility. Negotiations and prospective power-sharing in Afghanistan are fraught with risk, but they constitute a narrow opportunity to resolve the core conflict. Efforts to defeat the insurgents are highly unlikely to succeed, and could pave the way to a more deadly, internecine war.

3 October 2010

13   Figures derived from the annual reports of the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO). Back

14   Figure derived from the reports of the ANSO. Back

15   Rob Nordland, "Security in Afghanistan Is Deteriorating, Aid Groups Say", The New York Times, 11 September 2010. Back

16   Figures derived from Back

17   Figure derived from Back

18   Figures derived from UN reports.  Back

19   ANSO Quarterly Data Report, June 2010. Back

20   See, for example, Elisabeth Bumiller, "US General Cites Goals to Train Afghan Forces", The New York Times, 23 August 2010; and Brookings Institution, "Afghanistan Index", 31 August 2010. Back

21   See, for example: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Karzai seeks to limit role of US corruption investigators", The Washington Post, 9 September 2010. Back

22   See, for example: Greg Miller, "US effort to help Afghanistan fight corruption has complicated ties", The Washington Post, 10 September 2010.  Back

23   Ray Furlong, "Knowledge of Afghanistan 'astonishingly thin'", BBC Radio 4, Broadcasting House Programme, 31 July 2010. Back

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