Written evidence from Gerard Russell MBE|
- ¾ Seen
in terms of its relationship with the United States, the UK has
had some notable successes in Afghanistanand some setbacks.
Its overall participation in the Afghanistan campaign helped to
solidify its reputation as a strategic partner for the United
States. It has influenced American policy constructively. (Paragraphs
- ¾ The
strategy of carving out separate provinces, and separate policy
leads, for the various nations of the Coalition has however had
largely negative results both for this relationship and for the
overall effort. There should have been one person, based in Kabul,
to lead a unified international effort with a minimum of interference
from national Governments. (Paras 4-6)
- ¾ US
Ambassador Eikenberry is correct: expanding foreign assistance
increases Afghan dependence. The task in Afghanistan is for Afghans
to achieve a political and social equilibrium which would not
need to be routinely enforced by foreign troops. In this sense,
the task of the international community in Afghanistan is now
the orderly management of its own decline. Localised solutions
will probably follow. (Paras 7-18)
- ¾ Rapid
turnover of civilian and military personnel resulted in loss of
expertise and frequent changes in strategy. For future engagements,
the UK should devise (in partnership with other nations) a more
effective method of managing expertise. (Paras 19-23)
- ¾ Such
future engagements should not be based on the idea that war can
be an instrument of reform - or that international bureaucracies,
with whatever resources and noble intentions, can be a substitute
for indigenous political leadership. Slow and persistent nudges
towards reform are more effective than the short-term allocation
of vast resources, energy and attention to one country at a time.
1. The United States is providing 80% of
the Coalition troops in Afghanistan and a very substantial part
of the overall international expenditure there. Other countries
are in charge of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in at
most two provinces each. The United Kingdom meantime provides
a fraction of the troops and development assistance in Afghanistan
and is in charge of only one PRT.
2. Clearly therefore the UK's goals in Afghanistan
are going to be delivered through its relationship with the United
States. Indeed the most obvious benefit that the UK derives from
its deployment in Afghanistan is a strengthening of that relationship.
3. Seen in this light, the United Kingdom's strategy
has had some notable successes. It has been identified for some
time as a relative pessimist on the prospects for a purely military
solution in Afghanistan, and an advocate of localised solutions
and openness to the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban.
These are gradually becoming orthodox doctrines among commentators
in America, though not yet official US policy.
4. On the other hand the approach taken in Afghanistan
of allocating provinces and issues to "lead nations"
- the UK was responsible for drugs, and the security of Helmand
province - was bound to introduce tension into the US-UK relationship.
The system also has other flaws: it has encouraged the perception
of the Coalition effort in Afghanistan as one that was divided
between different nations, all with their own separate policies.
Not all nations have capabilities appropriate to their particular
provinces. Aid disbursement has been skewed, with more resources
going to provinces adopted by larger donors, and other provinces
being wholly neglected.
5. The array of international interlocutors that
engage with President Karzai - Ambassadors of the five or six
most important troop contributors, especially of course the US
Ambassador; the military and civilian chiefs of NATO in Afghanistan;
the UN and EU special representatives, the special representatives
of 15 nations, and apparently the head of the Central Intelligence
- can likewise cause confusion. When those individuals fail to
deliver the same message to President Karzai, not only is the
message itself undermined but so is the credibility of the international
6. As Ambassador Eikenberry has suggested in
two leaked cables published in November 2009 in the New
there should be one main civilian interlocutor with President
Karzai to ensure one clear message from the international community
- with the power to deliver on what they promise. The idea of
having Paddy Ashdown as a UN "super- envoy" was one
way to have arranged this. As an alternative, the US Ambassador
himself could fill this role - Ambassador Eikenberry's own suggestion.
Although it would mean some loss of our bilateral national clout
in Afghanistan, I believe that if the US ever chooses to pursue
this idea, the UK should endorse it for the sake of the success
of the wider mission.
7. Even if foreign forces could secure Afghanistan
today, they would not be able to secure it for ever. In the long-term,
it is the Afghan Government which has to achieve the social and
political equilibrium which can sustain permanent peace.
8. This means that the major challenge for the
stabilisation effort is that of Afghan leadership. Can the country's
leaders inspire its people to risk their lives to defeat the insurgency?
If they cannot, then it is hard to imagine that foreigners can
inspire them to do so - especially when those foreigners are present
so briefly, and are not perceived as having delivered on past
promises. The presence of foreign forces may therefore be a necessary
condition for peace in Afghanistan but it is obviously not a sufficient
9. Ambassador Eikenberry (again, in his leaked
cables) said that "an increased US and foreign role in security
and governance will increase Afghan dependency". He suggests
that the failures of the Afghan Government in confronting corruption
and improving governance are failures not just of capacity, but
also of will. In his assessment, "Karzai continues to shun
responsibility for any sovereign burden... He and much of his
circle do not want the US to leave."
10. The widespread perception - which President
Karzai himself has sometimes seemed to share - that the United
States and not the Afghan Government is responsible for the fight
against the Taliban, must inevitably detract from Afghan willingness
to sacrifice their lives in that fight. Perhaps it is for this
reason that President Najibullah is sometimes regarded as having
succeeded better after the 1988 withdrawal of Soviet forces than
before - surviving for over two years against an insurgency that
had both Pakistani and Western backing.
11. A large-scale international presence in Afghanistan
specifically stands in the way of Afghan peacemaking efforts,
in four ways: first, because it reduces pressure on the Afghan
political elite to achieve peace; second, because the Afghan Government
cannot deliver on any peace deal for as long as security strategy
is in the hands of the US Government; third, because the Taliban
are less likely to make peace with a Government that they denounce
as being under foreign domination; and fourth, because the Taliban
believe that the current balance of power is a temporary one and
that when US forces leave, they will be able to get a better deal.
12. My belief therefore is that an early move
by the international community towards a long-term, smaller, sustainable
presence - oriented towards training and airstrikes in support
of Afghan ground forces, rather than direct combat - will probably
on balance, in the long run, benefit Afghanistan.
13. It carries significant risks - of increased
insecurity and internal conflict, and of the Taliban taking over
the territory vacated by international forces. The Coalition's
current strategy, however, can no more than postpone these risks.
It does not eliminate them. They are risks that are better faced
while international troops remain in Afghanistan - before security
there grows even worse, and publics in troop-contributing nations
lose patience with continued losses.
14. The Taliban are already extending their influence
over territory across southern and eastern Afghanistan - not primarily
because the Afghan military lacks capacity (it always did), but
because the Taliban have more staying-power and determination
than the Afghan Government's civilian officials and police. Ceasing
to contest this space with them would not necessarily mean that
their movement would become a greater threat to the Kabul Government.
With new responsibilities, their perspective will change and they
will themselves realise that they have something to lose from
continued conflict; they will have the genuine prospect of gaining
something from peace.
15. Meantime the Afghan army could concentrate
on protecting pro-Government areas, and strategic locations (main
cities, border crossings and the highways) and be backed up by
Coalition airpower and Special Forces. If the UK wished, it could
also be part of this continued effort.
16. When there are fewer casualties being sustained
in Afghanistan, perhaps we could hope that financial aid to the
Afghan Government will be made more truly conditional on improvements
in the way it rules Afghanistan.
17. Whatever strategy is adopted, much power
will probably remain with or devolve to local power-brokers at
the expense of the central government. This gives rise to some
concern. Ambassador Francesc Vendrell has said: "Having failed
dismally to make the Afghan people our allies, we will inevitably
abandon them to a combination of Taliban in the south and the
warlords in the north."
It seems to me very likely that warlords will dominate the north
of Afghanistan; they already do. That is highly dispiriting for
those who know how their behaviour was in the 1980s and 1990s
and, in many cases, how it has remained since 2001. But the international
community has rarely acted in concert to offer them effective
incentives to improve their behaviour - or taken action against
those who continue to abuse human rights or engage in criminal
activity. This is one approach that should surely be tried.
18. I have made little reference here to Pakistan,
because I know that other witnesses will speak with more authority
than I on that subject. The overall goal must be to induce Pakistan
to act against the Afghan Taliban and actively to deny them shelter;
or, at least, for Pakistan to intervene in favour of a peace agreement
between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Without this, peace
in Afghanistan will be considerably less likely.
19. The single biggest lesson that I learned
from my own experience in Afghanistan, and prior to that in Iraq,
is that knowledge of the language, history, politics and culture
of a country is essential for the kind of mission that Coalition
members have undertaken there. In both cases the US, UK and other
countries have attempted to build or rebuild or reform the political
structures of the country, and install new leadership. They have
not therefore been able to deliver development goals just through
building an effective partnership with Iraqi or Afghan actors,
but have had to perform themselves the role that a national Government
would usually undertake - understanding the people's political
aspirations, communicating with them directly, and so forth. This
makes Dari and Pashto language skills, and the ability to move
around the country, particularly important.
20. Furthermore, because consistent strategy
and building relationships of trust is so important, personnel
should be encouraged to stay involved with Afghanistan for as
long as possible. Commanders of British forces in Helmand province
have rotated every six months, and civilian staff at the PRT likewise
can move on after six months; staff at the Embassy in Kabul stay
between one and two years. A recent report on staffing at the
United States Embassy in Kabul remarked, "The one-year assignment
scenario limits the development of expertise, contributes to a
lack of continuity, requires a higher number of officers to achieve
the administration's strategic goals, and results in what one
former ambassador calls 'an institutional lobotomy'".
21. My colleagues in Afghanistan - in both the
British Embassy and the United Nations - included some of the
most talented people I have ever worked with. The Foreign and
Commonwealth Office continues to excel, among its equivalents
internationally, in the quality and range of language training
that it offers. For a mission in Afghanistan, however, and similar
missions where a granular knowledge of public opinion and the
daily life of ordinary people is necessary, the FCO and other
departments will need to have access to new reserves of expertise
at short notice. It might be sensible for the FCO (for example)
to expand its recruitment of temporary contracted staff. This
would enable it to employ people who have already spent time in
Afghanistan as consultants, journalists, aid workers and so forth,
and who in some cases have already learned Dari or Pashto. It
might also want to encourage secondments to outside organisations
working in Afghanistan, such as the United Nations.
22. The FCO should certainly aim to have an incentive
structure which encourages and rewards staff to maximise their
contact with Afghans, rather than dedicating their time (for example)
to preparing reports that are to be sent back to capitals. Among
the Embassy's objectives, for instance, there should be a target
for the number and range of Afghans whose opinions the Embassy
will hear. Its own communications effort should be aimed at an
23. As a broader lesson from the Afghanistan
case, I believe that the UK Government should maintain, in partnership
with other Governments, a database of expertise, along the lines
of the database of civilian experts already maintained by the
UK's Stabilisation Unit (SU). That SU database divides people
by specialism, according to whether they have experience in demobilisation,
community engagement, and so forth. There should be a similar
database divided by expertise, so that HMG and other Governments
can be sure that in the event of a crisis happening anywhere in
the world, they have access to at least some people who have long-standing
experience of the particular place where that crisis is happening.
24. Even when such a system is in place, the
international community should be modest about its ability to
build governance structures (as opposed to assisting ones that
already exist). Its relative success in the former Yugoslavia
is beginning to look like an exception when set beside the criticism
of its efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and even East Timor. We can
compare with these cases, other countries where the UK and its
allies have encouraged slow and gradual reform. Such an approach
is much better suited to our post-imperial capacities and inclinations.
It also avoids the ironic dilemma we face in Afghanistan - where
the scale of our political investment has made the Afghan Government
feel that its international allies need it more than it needs
1 October 2010
24 Gerard Russell, MBE was
Political Counsellor at the British Embassy in Kabul 2007-8 and
Senior Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Assistance
Mission in Afghanistan in 2009. He is now a Research Fellow in
the Afghanistan/Pakistan programme at the Harvard Kennedy School's
Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Back
Siobhan Gorman, Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2010 Back
Paragraph 4, tiret 1 of the first cable. Back
Paragraph 1 of the first cable, ibid Back
Quoted for example in the New Republic, 23 August 2010. Back
Office of the Inspector General at the US State Department, report
ISP-I-10-32A, February 2010 Back