The UK's Foreign Policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan









Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 62



This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.


The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 13 October 2010

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Mr John Baron

Sir Menzies Campbell

Ann Clwyd

Mike Gapes

Andrew Rosindell

Mr Frank Roy

Sir John Stanley

Rory Stewart

Mr Dave Watts

Examination of Witnesses

Witness: Michael Semple, Fellow, Harvard University, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is on our report on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Semple, can you hear us okay?

Michael Semple: Yes, I can hear you fine.

Q2 Chair: Mr Semple, you are our first witness in this inquiry. Members of the public may be unaware that Mr Semple is sitting in Islamabad. We are down for 45 minutes, Michael. Over here in the UK it is 14.50 and we will be running this to 15.35. What time is it over there?

Michael Semple: We’ve got a four-hour difference at the moment.

Q3 Chair: Okay. Thank you very much for agreeing to this. I shall kick off the questions. I was having a look this morning at the article you wrote in February in which you were quite critical about efforts to focus reintegration on low-level fighters. What is your prognosis for the current attempts to reintegrate low-level fighters into the mainstream?

Michael Semple: I believe that the reintegration efforts are necessary but inadequate. The inherent limitation of the reintegration efforts is that as long as the leadership is standing well back from them they will work hard to replace anybody who accepts the reintegration deal. We’ve barely got to that stage yet because although reintegration has been avowedly at the top of policy since the start of this year, very little has happened. It has not been as joined up or as well funded an effort as some people thought it might be at the start of the year. If anybody thought that reintegration was going to be the main theme of 2010, it has not happened. The Taliban leadership has not had to replace many fighters lost to reintegration.

Q4 Chair: Do you think UK taxpayers are throwing money into a reintegration black hole here?

Michael Semple: That was always a risk. I’ve been critical of the predecessor programme as I believed that many of the supposed fighters signing up to it were not bona fide insurgents. We have not hit that problem this year. Basically, not much has happened so UK taxpayers’ money has been parked somewhere and, as far as I can see, has not been spent.

Q5 Chair: Am I correct in saying that you believe that the efforts should be higher up to the top leadership or do you think the emphasis should be more on reconciliation than reintegration?

Michael Semple: I think that both tracks should run. I think that it is sensible to continue efforts at reintegration, but to do that well. However, I also think that it is important to launch a much more politically oriented reconciliation track which would be at a higher level.

Chair: I will hand over to Mike Gapes now, who will continue the questioning.

Q6 Mike Gapes: Do you think that we–the UK, the US, ISAF–have any real idea or any coherent view of what we mean by reconciliation?

Michael Semple: Obviously a lot of people have worked on it. There is a lot of comment out there. It is a good question because some big decisions have not yet been taken so I am sure that there are quite a few conflicting ideas out there. In one sense, since the end of last year when the distinction had started to be made between reintegration and reconciliation, people have become a little bit clearer that reconciliation means some kind of political accommodation with the leadership of the insurgency, allowing them to join the political system in Afghanistan. That has been my understanding of the range of the debate over the past year.

Q7 Mike Gapes: But isn’t there a danger that if you have reconciliation from a position of weakness, you end up with a position that is very dangerous for the long-term? We had a report last year, in the previous Foreign Affairs Committee, in which we said that there could be no serious prospects for meaningful discussions until the Afghan National Security Forces were able to gain and hold ground and then negotiate from a position of strength. Do you agree with that approach, or do you think that we just need to negotiate regardless of the circumstances?

Michael Semple: There are a couple of aspects to this. First of all, I think that the single most important factor that could help the leadership in the insurgency to make their mind up, get on with it and enter into some kind of negotiations in good faith, would be if they realised that they had no realistic military prospects of toppling the Government in Kabul and taking over the country. That is a slightly different phrasing of what you are saying, but clearly the way they read the military situation affects the way forward to reconciliation. But what I really don’t buy is this notion that that means that those on the international side and the Government of Afghanistan have to sit back and wait for a transformation of the military situation. We do not believe that there is any formula which allows you to send out invitations for negotiation, for those to be delivered and for negotiations to be able to start one week or two weeks later. It is an incredible amount of mistrust with the lack of confidence on both sides, something which perhaps we could get with a low profile before any meaningful negotiation process starts. There are a lot of useful things that could be done even before this fundamental change makes the situation happen.

Chair: Mr Semple, I am terribly sorry. I don’t know if you can hear at your end, but we have a Division bell ringing yet again. You have picked one of the worst afternoons that we could be having for this type of thing. I am terribly sorry, but I have got to adjourn the meeting for a further 10 minutes.

Michael Semple: Okay, that’s fine.

Chair: I do apologise. It’s called democracy.

Sitting adjourned for a Division in the House.

On resuming-

Chair: I do apologise for the interruption, Mr Semple. The intelligence I have is that that was the last time we shall be interrupted. The Committee is drifting back, but we are quorate, so I intend to start. I’m handing over to Mike Gapes, who had put a question to you just before the break.

Q8 Mike Gapes: Mr Semple, I’m not sure, because of the bell, whether all of what you said was picked up, so perhaps you could summarise what you said in your last answer and then I’ll come in with another question.

Michael Semple: There were two basic points. The first point is that I believe that one of the main factors affecting the decision of the Taliban vis-à-vis negotiation possibilities and entering a settlement is how they view the future. If they believe that they don’t stand a chance in the foreseeable future of managing to grab Kabul, they’re more inclined to enter into negotiations in good faith. If they see Kabul crumbling, their war party is more inclined to try and just grab it. However, even while you wait for something to be done to shore up the military situation, there is an awful lot that can be done in terms of reconciliation. You can summarise it simply by calling it confidence-building. The parties are so far apart at the moment that there is a lot of confidence-building that can be done to lay the ground for successful future negotiations.

Q9 Mike Gapes: To what extent, separately, are the Kabul authorities, the Afghan Government, our own allies and ISAF in a position to set the terms and conditions for any negotiations?

Michael Semple: If setting terms means being able to dictate all those terms, not expecting anybody else to have a say, at the moment I don’t think that the military and political situation really renders that possible. That’s why, when I talk about reconciliation, I certainly think it’ll take some form of accommodation. There is going to be some kind of give and take.

Q10 Mike Gapes: Can I give you a specific example with regard to the position of women in Afghanistan? Would we be able to lay down some kind of bottom line, which has to be accommodated?

Michael Semple: I can feed back from some discussions I have had, behind the scenes, with various figures in the Taliban whom it is possible to get access to, at which I have asked exactly the same thing: what is likely to be their attitude to women moving into some kind of roles-whether it be in negotiations, or into future relationships or roles in the political system? The sensible ones say quite clearly that they realise that there are bottom lines. They also generally make a point of saying that they have moved on, and that they have recognised some of their failures during their period in Government.

It would be the wrong way to think of it that somehow the western powers go in muscling their way in negotiations, and that they will somehow be sole guarantors of the rights of Afghan women. The way I understand it is that the pragmatists in the Taliban would see benefits of being part of the political system and benefits of being accepted by the international community. Then you realise that they have to move on this themselves. They would probably prefer to be seen, in a sense, to be making that move themselves, rather than having their arms twisted the whole way. I think that there is a prospect for a positive outcome, but going about it the wrong way could undermine it.

Chair: A quick one on reconciliation-John.

Q11 Mr Baron: The chances of reconciliation and a successful negotiated settlement generally will obviously be improved if we can carry, to a certain extent at least, the hearts and minds of the local population. I would suggest that with the Government’s political credibility very low and with high civilian casualty rates, it is much easier for the Taliban to depict Kabul as a sort of puppet Government, and the West as an occupying force. What chance do you think there is of winning the hearts and minds of at least a reasonable segment of the population so that reconciliation can become a more likely prospect?

Michael Semple: That is a difficult one. Before we come on to what the general population, those who are not in the insurgency, think, we should look at what the Taliban think. You are absolutely right to say that one of the main recruiting tools that the Taliban have is their ability to point to the ongoing military operation, to claim that they have this enmity with NATO and to mobilise young Afghans in the latest struggle against foreign occupation. In a sense, for the Taliban to recruit and persuade people that it is worth making the sacrifice to continue the fight, they have to persuade people not to believe the narrative that I think comes out of most western capitals, which is that no western country wants to be involved in occupying Afghanistan, and that the idea is going to help stabilise and wind down the military presence as soon as possible. So the Taliban have their own problem in winning hearts and minds to persuade people to fight.

On the other side, reconciliation, which I think makes sense, is about ensuring that there is something in the political order based around Kabul that is worth joining. Of course, the Kabul Government have to be at least performing up to a certain minimum standard, and western troops should not be providing too many propaganda opportunities with the civilian casualties. Somewhere along the way, there is going to have to be a better understanding of the long-term intentions to help Afghanistan.

Q12 Mr Frank Roy: The United States has been put forward as a country that drags its feet in relation to reconciliation. Where do you think we are in relation to reconciliation and the United States? How difficult will it be to bring about that reconciliation when they have said that they are very reluctant to negotiate with parties that are irreconcilable?

Michael Semple: I think it is true that previously it was very difficult for the US to contemplate something as radical as entering into a political accommodation with the Taliban. It is very difficult-it goes against many of the received narratives. That is why, as things have moved on over the past two or three years, publicly the US has moved the position of being supportive of reintegration but hasn’t been taking public stances in support of reconciliation with the Taliban leadership. I believe that there is an inherent logic in reconciliation that ultimately is bound to appeal to the US, and I would expect a significant change from the US to be supportive of reconciliation on the right terms. You can argue about history, and maybe there has been US foot-dragging, but I think there is a pretty serious prospect that the US, as part of its commitment to try to wind down the military entanglement in a sensible way that will lead to a stable Afghanistan, will come out more clearly in favour of reconciliation.

Ann Clwyd: Mr. Semple, those eats in front of you look very nice, although I don’t know what they are.

Michael Semple: I wish I could offer them to you.

Q13 Ann Clwyd: I wonder if you could identify which elements within the Afghan insurgency are actually interested in negotiating with either Kabul or the rest, or both.

Michael Semple: Good question. In my experience of people from the original Taliban leadership from the Kandaharis-those who tried to get Mullah Omar back in 1994 and stuck with the movement throughout their period of Government-there is a significant level of interest there. That is not to say it is all easy and that it is going to happen tomorrow, but those are the people with whom we assume it is possible to sit down and have a very sensible discussion. They understand a lot more about the world than they are often given credit for, and they have a vision of a political settlement. So the first answer to that is a significant part of the original Kandahari leadership.

Looking at other parts of the movement and at the talk of the Haqqani Network and the people operating out of Waziristan, it is generally assumed that it would be impossible for them to go along with a negotiated settlement. On the other hand, I have heard a few signals saying that that’s not actually the case. I take a lot of this with a pinch of salt at the moment. Certainly the conversations that I have had have been much more meaningful with the original Kandahari leadership than with the people operating out of Waziristan.

Throughout the insurgency, any who think politically understand that, whether it is after 10 years or after one year, there will have to be a political process. There is not a monopoly in Kandahar; I started off by saying Kandahar because they are so important to the overall insurgency and in a sense they borrowed the brand name of the Taliban. The make-or-break role in any reconciliation process will rest with the Khost Talibs and the Kandahari Talibs.

Q14 Ann Clwyd: Apart from Mullah Omar, are there any other key individuals who are willing to talk to the Afghans?

Michael Semple: There are. This is probably not the best forum to go through that, but I can just explain that the people who formed this process are forever trying to work out who the pragmatists are, what scope they have and what weight they have. There are significant numbers of pragmatists in the original movement, and it probably all comes down to the circumstance in which the process starts, rather than just which individual. A lot of people will show their true colours when the time is right.

Q15 Ann Clwyd: Do you think that those who are interested in talking have sufficient clout within their own groups to bring those groups along with them?

Michael Semple: I will give you an example. The person that Mullah Omar appointed as his deputy essentially to run the insurgency is Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was the Civil Aviation Minister during the Taliban period of Government. My reading of him from his history, the way he behaved in the past, and so on, is that in the right circumstances he would come down as a pragmatist, yet he does nothing. He understands the world and he has a vision of an end beyond the conflict, and Mansour would be on board in the right circumstances. Currently, Mansour is assigned to run the insurgency, so he can’t just put his hand up and say, "Okay, we want the negotiations now". Links can be created, and it is possible to deal with people even right at the top of the Taliban movement.

Q16 Rory Stewart: Hello, Michael. What is Pakistan’s role in all of this, and how should the international community respond? What should we not do in relation to Pakistan and what should we do in relation to Pakistan?

Michael Semple: Thanks for the most difficult one, Rory. Obviously, all of the sensitive issues really revolve around the role of Pakistan. However you explain it and whoever you blame, the fact is that every commander network that is operating in the insurgency-I vaguely understand that the insurgency is just a conglomeration of multiple commander networks-has a base in Pakistan. They all drove on what is being called as a form of safe haven, although if you are talking about Waziristan it is not quite as safe these days. Seriously, Pakistan is a host for part of the insurgency.

If you are talking about the potential for Pakistan’s role, I would say that the best potential for that role is essentially to turn what we have seen as a sort of military liability into a political asset and to make it possible for whoever is in charge of pushing for the deal to convince the Taliban that there is a life beyond our struggle, and that there is the possibility of an accommodation in which they will no longer be obliged to go out and risk getting themselves killed every day. The best hope for Pakistan is to put that faith at the disposal of those who pursue reconciliation, which is very different from asking for it to be used for strikes or an arrest or something. Speaking for Pakistan, the best thing to do would be to create an informal safe haven for peace rather than a safe haven for insurgents.

In terms of what Pakistan is currently doing, let me first of all refer to what a lot of the Taliban say, with the note of caution that most Afghan stories have to be taken with a certain pinch of salt and evaluated. Frequently, when I talk to the Taliban, they say that some elements in the Pakistan security establishment actively discipline the insurgency, apply all sorts of leverage to ensure that they keep up with the fight and maintain an eagle eye to ensure that nobody waivers. That is not to say that there should never be any possibility of some kind of negotiation, but it should only be on authorised terms and through authorised channels. Multiple Taliban have told me that story and given that version of events, and of course you have followed all the discussions around the arrest of Mullah Baradar and of various other arrests that went around, and everybody was trying to interpret those. Many Taliban choose to say that "that was a means of disciplining us". To the extent that that is real, wherever it is coming from and however that rests against other aspects of Pakistan’s policy, we should never forgot that Pakistan is the second largest beneficiary from successful reconciliation, peace in Afghanistan and a movement towards getting back on track-second only to the Afghan people themselves.

However you understand this role of disciplining people and twisting their arms to keep up the fight, it is important to deal with Pakistan in such a way that you encourage the good and discourage the bad, so that they actually take a positive stance towards reconciliation, let the space be used for pursuing reconciliation-after all, that is what they say they want-and rein in anybody who is doing the disciplining. In the previous answer we talked about how would the negotiations be, but before you get anywhere near the negotiations, a lot of Taliban say, "First we want to know, what kind of protection or guarantee can you provide for us when we eventually enter a reconciliation stage?"

Q17 Chair: What role can President Karzai play in reconciliation? Will the Taliban talk to him? Do they trust him? Can he play a part in all this?

Michael Semple: First of all, President Karzai is the President of Afghanistan; he has a key role in everything that happens in Afghanistan and woe betide anyone who forgets it. I can feed back the kind of things that the Taliban say when I get a chance to talk to them. They do not particularly trust President Karzai. They are strangely unconvinced that President Karzai or the Kabul Administration exercise real authority. They are not greatly convinced that the Kabul Administration have staying power. They vary in their degree of allergy to Kabul. They certainly do not expect that a process where exclusively the Taliban talk to Karzai, who talks to the Kabul Government, would be terribly fruitful. In my contact with the Taliban they have been pretty consistent in saying that they expect an international role. They do not expect that a deal cut with only Kabul would be robust.

Q18 Chair: If not Karzai, then who?

Michael Semple: Well, they do not have terribly good answers on that, and I think that they will probably end up eventually talking to Kabul, and talking to President Karzai. In terms of the mechanics of getting things going and particularly the early stages of building up confidence and creating a space in which people can envisage what the deal and accommodation would look like, I think that a trusted international intermediary really could help unlock things. That is something that has sort of forced itself on to the agenda of late.

Q19 Mr Baron: Can I return to the issue of the hearts and minds of the local population, because that is going to be a key issue? Various reports, and I know there cannot be too much accuracy in these, suggest that civilian casualty rates have gone up relatively recently. I just wanted to know your analysis of that and the effect that it may be having on local populations and so forth, because the recent report by the US Department of Defence to Congress said that the most lethal weapon the Taliban had was their propaganda and that they can get into these situations very quickly and exploit bad news for their own benefit. If you look at the history of those countries or regimes that have taken on the West militarily, communism has survived the longest for example in North Korea, Cuba, China and Vietnam. I just worry that the civilian casualty rates are having a real negative approach to everything and make our chances of succeeding here-whatever you deem that success to be-very remote indeed.

Michael Semple: I think that it is absolutely right that the civilian casualty rate, apart from being bad in itself, makes things all the more difficult in the political process and certainly the Taliban capitalise on it. It also reduces the moral authority of both ISAF and the Kabul Government. I guess that alongside the civilian casualty rate there has been some increase in the Taliban casualty rate, which is just pushing us in a slightly different direction. Overall, the reporting of civilian casualties has a tendency to make people think "a plague on all their houses".

Q20 Mr Baron: Can I follow that up a little bit? Some sort of negotiation, I would suggest, is obviously going to have to involve the Taliban in their various guises, and the regional warlords. It is the old saying that you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. You have commented about perhaps a suspicion with regard to President Karzai. We know of the US hostility or public hostility to any form of negotiation. At the end of the day, there has to be some sort of negotiated settlement, reflecting the reality on the ground, which is the regional power base of the warlords and the various components of the Taliban, but how is that going to be instigated? Is this going to be very low-level and under the radar screen, or is it about time for a public acceptance that there has to be some form of negotiation?

Michael Semple: Let me quickly make one more point on the previous question, then come on to the issue of the warlords. On the issue of civilian casualties, I have heard quite a few of the Taliban talk about the impact of military escalation on their own calculations, which is a slightly different point from the way people normally look at civilian casualties. Particularly with the start of the surge and in the case of the military operations, the Taliban basically say to me, "Oh, it seems that your people have obviously decided to fight this one through rather than settle it. Okay, we fight. We realise that all this talk about reconciliation was not serious". Basically, what they are saying is, "As you escalate and generate both civilian and military casualties, you undermine your claim to be interested ultimately in a settlement".

Moving on to the issue of involvement of the regional warlords, the problem is that I did not get all of the question. If the point is about those who are the power behind the throne in Kabul-the strong men of the political order in Kabul-I think it is very sensible to think that they should be on board. It is a point that I have always discussed with the Taliban as well. The last thing you need on the Afghan counterpart side is a neutral figure. You need to be talking to old enemies if you are going to settle something. However the process is structured, an opportunity will have to be created for other political stakeholders on the Kabul side to sign off on any deal. The idea that a small number of people sitting in the palace should be signing off on it would be mistaken.

It is also worth pointing out that President Karzai is making this kind of calculation as well. If you look at the composition of his High Council for Peace, a lot of the people he has deliberately brought in have got lots of experience of waging war rather than promoting peace. I think what he is trying to do is demonstrate that some of the Taliban’s old enemies are sitting on the other side.

The question I partly heard was whether it is time to be coming out in public with this. I believe that a public commitment to pursue reconciliation and seek a political accommodation would have a positive effect. It is something that one shouldn’t be frightened of. Doing it transparently would be far better than all these smoke-and-mirror stories that go around about supposed talks and so on happening. We have a fundamental problem in the narrative of what all these countries are doing in Afghanistan. I had naïvely thought early on that we were supposed to be about promoting peace in Afghanistan after an excessively long war. Even after listening to all the attempts to sum up national security interest in terms of the hunt for al-Qaeda, I think that the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan best sums up the common interest between countries such as the UK, the US, Afghanistan and even Pakistan. The issues of taking care of the terrorist threat can be nicely parked inside the overall agenda of peace. When you say that your primary business is promoting peace-with a robust element to it as well-you do not have to be frightened of showing weakness by being prepared to come to accommodation, because accommodation is fundamental to the pursuit of peace.

Q21 Sir Menzies Campbell: Could we give the word "regional" a wider application? How far do you think that any deal, if you will forgive the colloquialism, would depend upon regional acquiescence and/or support? In particular, as Pakistan and India are often at loggerheads for a variety of reasons, some historical, some contemporary, what role, positive or negative, do you think India might play?

Michael Semple: On the one hand, to make progress on reconciliation one would want to keep it as simple as possible. On the other hand, if you don’t address the regional dimension it will not work. Of all the regional powers, Pakistan is probably the one with most invested in this and the potential to help most in reconciliation and also to spoil it if it were to so choose. The first point is that in any move towards reconciliation it is important to have Pakistan on board. Ideas have been put forward that Pakistan could help by putting its proxies at the disposal of the reconciliation process. That will probably not work. A more sensible approach would be to have regional diplomacy to ensure that Pakistan’s interests and concerns are dealt with separately rather than via Afghan proxies.

It is not that Pakistan somehow chooses the proxies in the insurgency and pushes them towards the negotiating table, it is more that Pakistan, in dealing with the US, Kabul and the other people involved, gets a chance to say, "Look, we’re concerned about A, B and C and who can help us." You are well aware that we have been told in many forums that the first concern for Pakistan is that there should be viable stability inside Afghanistan so that Afghan problems don’t keep coming back to Pakistan. The second concern is that there should not be adverse Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan should not have to worry about the Afghan frontier becoming a hostile frontier as it sometimes treats the Indian frontier in its security analyses.

Basically, there has to be regional diplomacy which ensures that Pakistan is reasonably certain that beyond the peace deal and into the future, there will be no adverse Indian influence. I have heard reasonable and unreasonable formulations of this. It would be absolutely inappropriate to think of India being talked out of Afghanistan. India is a major regional power and it has to be doing things in Afghanistan, but there have to be some guidelines about what crosses the red line in terms of constituting a threat to Pakistan. A range of other regional powers have some kind of stake in Afghanistan, but none of them quite as much as Pakistan or India. The practical way probably to deal with this would be somebody taking forward a reconciliation track, particularly something like an international mediator, who would probably need a regional support group to work with them and to provide mutual reassurances. You will recall that Saudi Arabia has frequently been mentioned as a country with a lot to offer and also something to gain from the al-Qaeda issue being dealt with. That is an example of the kind of country that would play a very important role inside a regional support group for any reconciliation process.

Q22 Chair: Thank you. Mr Semple, time has expired. May I close with a final question? What are the essential steps for a successful reconciliation? Can you conclude with an overview of how it could be achieved?

Michael Semple: First, the key players decide to do it, moving beyond the kind of confusion and ambiguities that we have had. The next step is clearly assigning responsibility. Somebody has to run with this. There are various options, but it’s going to be quite a painful process, and it’s not going to happen by default. Somebody’s going to have to run with it.

When that person runs with it, there’s going to be a process of building up confidence among all parties that there can actually be a settlement which will be useful for them. There’s going to be intense diplomatic work on both sides of the Durand line and in several regional capitals. Then there’s going to be aligning the overall political and military engagement in Afghanistan with any emerging settlement. At some stage along the way, there probably will be a round of negotiations. Then there’s resourcing it.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. That was really helpful, gives us a good insight and sets us off on our inquiry. It’s very much appreciated that you’ve taken the time to do this. On behalf of the Committee, I convey our thanks.

Michael Semple: Thank you very much. I’m delighted by the opportunity, and I’m really glad that you’re asking all these questions about reconciliation and reintegration. The sooner we get back to pursuing a peace process in Afghanistan, the better.

Witnesses: James Fergusson, Author and Journalist, Jolyon Leslie, Independent Analyst, and Matt Waldman, Independent Analyst, gave evidence.

Q23 Chair: Reconciliation and reintegration are the theme of this session. Thank you very much. We now move to phase 2.

Thank you for your patience and for waiting. Are you happy to stay until 5 o’clock? I intend to extend the session by half an hour. Hopefully there will be no votes and we can have an uninterrupted session.

I welcome Mr Leslie who is an independent Afghan analyst; Mr Waldman, who is also an independent Afghan analyst; and Mr Fergusson, who is an author and journalist. All of them are experts in their field, particularly in the area of reconciliation. We will be putting questions to you. You have probably seen the format. Don’t feel that every one of you has to answer every question; just come in on what you think is critical, and let’s try to keep the session moving.

Can you tell me what you think is the mindset of the average Afghan on reconciliation? Is there a consensus on what sort of outcome they want to have? Mr Fergusson, would you like to start?

James Fergusson: Gosh, is there such a thing as an average Afghan? I think there is a consensus about fed-upness with the war. We’re in year 9 of the intervention, and the numbers of foreigners keep on going up. It doesn’t seem to most Afghans, I think it would be safe to say, that there is a concomitance of improvement in the way that things are going there. In fact, you could argue pretty strongly that they’re getting worse in terms of increased civilian casualties and so on.

I think it’s important to remember how hard-wired the antipathy to foreigners really is among the Afghans-not just the Pashtuns; all sorts-and here we go again. From the things that the Afghans say to me, they don’t understand what we’re doing back there again and again. It’s been so many times. The one thing that unifies the Afghans is a distrust of foreigners. They want to be left alone. Would you agree with that?

Matt Waldman: I would agree with much of that. I have spent some time talking to Afghans about this issue, including in the centre of the country and the north, where one might expect a degree of scepticism about reconciliation and negotiations. But what was extraordinary was the degree of support. I think there’s a number of reasons for that. Perhaps it is to some extent a traditional mechanism inside Afghanistan for resolving disputes. I think they also are, as James says, suffering from the war. Even the people in the north are now increasingly affected by the conflict, but I feel that another factor coming into play, which affects their attitude, is that a majority of Afghans do not now believe that we seek to defeat the insurgency. Of course, that is acutely problematic from a counter-insurgency point of view. It also means that there is the belief that the only way out of this situation is through a negotiated settlement.

Q24 Chair: Is President Karzai the man to lead the charge on reconciliation?

Matt Waldman: That is a very big question. Certainly, talking to officials about that there is a diversity of views. There are those who are not convinced that he genuinely wants to see a negotiated outcome because, of course, he stands to lose power. Also, one might consider that his pronouncements are popular. Given the fact that a clear majority of Afghans support the idea, it is popular to say that that’s the way he wants to go. When you consider the preconditions that he and the international community have laid down, it is hard to believe that he is sincere when those conditions-giving up violence, accepting the constitution, the acceptance of the Administration and renouncing ties to al-Qaeda-amount to surrender in their eyes, and I think most Afghans are aware of that. If you consider those pre-conditions, one has to ask questions about the sincerity of the Administration and the international community in taking this forward.

Jolyon Leslie: I concur with what James and Matt have said. I think it varies between a level of grudging support and, certainly in the world I inhabit, of resignation that something needs to end. The ambivalence that I pick up-apart from the anger at the incompetence of the regime, the Administration and the corruption-is that to some extent the Government are a very weak partner right now. They are on the back foot. Is the Peace Council, or elements within the Peace Council, actually able to run with the ball? People feel worried about that now. They are worried as to whether it will be treated as an honest broker, or whether it is competent enough to negotiate a settlement that would benefit ordinary Afghans.

James Fergusson: I might just add that the problem with Karzai is Karzai the man. The answer is no, because the Taliban do not want to speak to him. They regard him as being beyond the pale in terms of corruption, as a western stooge and the rest of it. I would rather go along with the line from the former UN Special Representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, earlier this year. He said that if you want important results in reconciliation and negotiation then we have to talk to important people. In the end what we need to happen is talks directly between Quetta and Washington. That is what matters most of all.

Q25 Chair: If there was reconciliation, what would a post-reconciliation Afghanistan look like? What impact would it have on the constitutional structures?

James Fergusson: My view is that we need a new constitution. Afghanistan has had six constitutions since the 1920s, so there is no reason to regard the present one as immutable. We need to reopen the constitutional debate which led to this constitution in 2002. It is centrally flawed in that the Taliban, who would argue that they represent one half of the country, were never consulted on the contents of that constitution. They were not invited to Bonn. Brahimi said that that was our original sin at the time. The Taliban were not even invited and they really need to be. That is a problem, first of all.

Q26 Sir John Stanley: Do you see any way in which we can avoid the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan being sacrificed as the price of a settlement that the Taliban are willing to buy into?

Matt Waldman: That is a very difficult question to answer. I have spent the last six or seven months talking to Taliban commanders from different parts of the country, and that is one of the questions that I ask. Their position is essentially that women should be separated from men in the public sphere. Obviously, from our perspective, that is not satisfactory and it is, indeed, objectionable in some respects.

As Michael said earlier, there are those who say that they have moved on and recognise some of the mistakes that were made. I think that many Taliban objectives converge with our own. If you consider the departure of foreign forces, law and order, better government and national sovereignty, there are a number of areas where they converge and that is one of the reasons why I support the idea of negotiations. However, one of the meanings of sharia as they interpret it is what we consider to be a repressive approach to the rights, freedoms and opportunities of women and girls. I am not going to disguise the fact that that is going to be a very difficult issue. We have to take into account the fact that, in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan and in other parts and communities elsewhere in Afghanistan, there is support for practices that we would not consider liberal or fair with respect to women. So in some cases, the Taliban’s views are not wholly disassociated from those of the population, but I believe that the only way through this is for women ultimately to have a real role in the process. That may not happen immediately, but I think that it has to happen.

Q27 Ann Clwyd: I would like to follow on from that. One of the reasons for my support for the war is the empowerment of women in Afghanistan. Twice a year, I meet Afghan delegations-Members of Parliament-who nominally always include a woman. But the last time we met them in Geneva, there was one woman who didn’t say one word. I asked her why she didn’t speak during the delegation and she said, "I’ve been told not to, because the leader of our delegation is a warlord. He told me that I could not speak". She spoke a lot to us separately, because we got her on her own. That was my recent experience meeting an Afghan delegation just two weeks ago, too. So although we have empowered women, we have not ensured at the same time that they have equal rights of speech and so on. I just don’t know how we get around that.

Jolyon Leslie: One day at a time. It is going to take a lot longer. Having negotiated on these very issues-education and employment-for the UN with the Taliban in the ’90s when they were actually in power, I think there is a lot more leeway than we sometimes explain. The reality is ordinary social life in Afghanistan-that is the main obstacle, particularly the realities of rural life and the kind of atmosphere and structure that you mentioned where women don’t feel they can speak out. It is not one particular group that is promoting that; it is members of the Peace Council. We can see all the names there. On some levels, they are very anti-women as well. We need to confront it, but give people time.

Certainly, the more remarkable Afghan women in the body politic in Kabul are really pushing it, and I think they need more support. They feel very isolated. I had a meeting a couple of weeks ago with the deputy head of the Civil Service Commission and she said that she’s never felt more isolated than she does now. Diplomats are isolating her, and she doesn’t feel that she gets that political support in Kabul and she doesn’t have a lot of Afghans to support her.

Q28 Ann Clwyd: Would you agree that Karzai himself doesn’t give the right signals to the situation of women in the country either? He sacked one woman who was a Women’s Minister some years ago when I was there, because she was in Washington and her headscarf slipped off. She gave a press conference and she was sacked when she got back. That is hardly the right signal from the Head of State.

James Fergusson: It may be because he is speaking to his own Pashtun constituency. That is the thing. I think it is very important that we remember-I am paraphrasing General Petraeus-why we are there. Women’s rights are not directly relevant to this question of western security. Petraeus urged us to remember why we are there; we are there to make sure that al-Qaeda cannot come back and establish a base. However much we would like to change Afghan society and see a better deal for Afghan women, and of course we would, that is not why we are there militarily. It is not even part of the mission statement, and it has never been. It does not directly impinge on western security issues. You can go on engaging with them in a civilian way, but that is something quite separate and of a second order, I would suggest, however tough that sounds, to the military work.

Q29 Rory Stewart: Thank you very much. Jolyon, you have worked in Afghanistan since the Soviet period. Is there something that you would say to us and to western policy makers about what we misunderstand about Afghanistan, such as common mistakes that we make; ways in which Afghans perceive us; or ways in which our policies go wrong?

Jolyon Leslie: My goodness, one has written about it. As things stand at the moment, the key thing is that we need to back off and give Afghans some space to work things out themselves. Whether the High Peace Council is part of that or whether it will be micro-managed by the military powers that have an interest in the country, and that have a lot of troops there, remains to be seen. The hope is with the kind of Afghans that I have worked with for years and years, not necessarily with combatants. At the moment, they are feeling very confined by the international military who tell them what to do day and night, and who intrude on their space. I do not think that we should underestimate that, as Michael was saying, in terms of losing hearts and minds. An incompetent regime that we have put in place proved its incompetence in some ways- dear friends to a man and woman but not terribly effective. We need somehow to let them have the voice to try and work that out, which needs space and time.

With the whole conference cycle, these compacts and these benchmarks that we are chucking at this country, people sometimes feel that they are being frogmarched into a process that will unravel inevitably if it is not on their terms. I am heartened by the kind of questions that are being asked in this session but I wish that they had been asked way back in 2001–02, with this level of self-criticism.

At the receiving end of visits to Kabul, one sometimes hears opinions being promoted by the country that are very ill-informed, so goodness knows what some of the Afghans hear. We need to put them more centre stage, as Ann was alluding to, either in set-piece events like that or by getting out more, because one of the worries in the country is that we are cloistering ourselves away. We are not sure who to be afraid of-whether it is the Afghan National Army, or the insurgency, or factional forces that are re-emerging-so we are isolating ourselves more and more, and I think Afghans feel that at the moment.

To some extent, I am contradicting myself because I have said that Afghans need space and they do not necessarily need foreigners asking what they are doing, but we just need to slow down a little bit and literally pull back. I believe that we should also pull back militarily, and face the consequences. I think that Afghans will work it out, much more than we would wish to acknowledge after our investments.

Q30 Rory Stewart: Can you give us concrete examples of the sorts of things that British or American policy makers would generally say or do that strike you as wrong-headed or somehow misunderstanding our relationship to the Afghan people?

Jolyon Leslie: Perhaps the whole Helmand issue is a case in point, in the sense that we have presented a very difficult campaign in rather triumphalist terms, consistently for months if not for years. When the going gets tough, we are not honest enough about whom to blame it on, and maybe James would like to comment on that as well, given what he has written about. I often feel very disappointed that we are still peddling this mythology to some extent about the fact that we can go in and hold, clear and build an area. It is so patently clear at the village level-my life is in Afghan villages, not particularly in Kabul-that outsiders cannot do that. Even if you can clear, you are unlikely to hold, and you certainly cannot build.

To come to my profession, which is development work, I think we need to be more honest about what we can’t do in that country in terms of development. With all respect to DFID-I know that this meeting is not about international development, but we need to be honest that we cannot do development in full-body armour. There is a problem there somewhere. The Afghans are beginning to move on from being sceptical to actually being angry about some of these issues, because they are having to swallow some of these resentments. It’s making them very cynical about everything that we do as a result. That is a sadness, because the will is there and the intention is good, but we need to be more brutally honest about what we cannot do.

Q31 Rory Stewart: Finally, just to bring in Matt and James, you spend a lot of your time talking to policy makers, briefing them, and trying to explain some ideas. What, in blunt terms, do you think policy makers don’t get about Afghanistan? What are you struggling to communicate?

Matt Waldman: Personally, I find that it is the fact that we are not winning, and that events are not going in our favour. I’ve been going to ISAF for four years, and every year I have heard the same refrain, which is that we are degrading the enemy, they are really feeling the heat, and we are turning the corner. However, if you look at the facts on the ground, and if you talk to ordinary Afghans, you get a very different picture. It is clear that the insurgency has moved from the south and the south-east, up into the centre, and to parts of the north and parts of the west. They are launching more attacks than ever before and are killing a record number of foreign soldiers, Afghan soldiers and police. They have this systematic campaign of intimidation against the population. From the perspective of the Afghans, no matter how many insurgents we may be killing or capturing, this is not going our way. The Taliban are moving from strength to strength.

One of the problems is that we have made the mistake of seeing a number of small tactical successes as a strategic success. We continue to do that; we observe the small elements where progress is being made-and in some areas, I believe progress is being made, even in Helmand-but we should not mistake that for strategic success. That, for me, is the biggest frustration. If you accept that, it leads you to the conclusion that the current strategy will not succeed and that we need a new approach. My conclusion is that, within that new approach, there has to be a willingness to explore the potential of negotiations. As difficult as it may be, we have to accept that.

James Fergusson: I agree with all of that. In general, we are extremely bad at seeing Afghanistan, its problems, and the Taliban in particular through Afghan eyes. We persist in looking at the Taliban through western eyes. The question of women’s rights is a classic example. To the ordinary Afghan, the way that the Taliban treat women is not so surprising or strange. It is difficult for us to comprehend that and we need to.

There was that awful incident the other day, of the young lady with her nose sliced off by a Taliban member. There was a poll after that, asking what people thought of it, and 100 Afghan men were interviewed. They said, "Well, if that had been me, I would have killed her". There is a completely different way of looking at these things, and over and over again, we cannot quite comprehend the people that we are dealing with.

We certainly don’t understand the Taliban. It seems that we persist in seeing the Taliban as an armed militia, when actually they are not just that. They are also a frame of mind, if I can put it like that. For example, earlier this year, when President Karzai got cross with America once again and flew off the handle, saying, "If you carry on like that, I think I might just join the Taliban myself", everyone said, "President Karzai has gone off the handle again". I don’t think he had. I think he was absolutely spot on. What he was expressing was that Taliban-ness is part of the Afghan psyche in a way that the West simply hasn’t got-even in the President that we support. He is a Pashtun, and the way that the Taliban are is part of the Pashtun psyche. That is something that we simply haven’t got and until we do, we are never going to get anywhere. You have to know the people that you are dealing with and we still don’t.

Q32 Chair: James, in your recent book, you argued that the UK is uniquely placed to influence the American Government on the issue of reconciliation. Do you think they would listen to us? Is this a road that we should be going down, and what would the US response be?

James Fergusson: I don’t know, is the short answer. A lot of the time, these things depend on personal relationships. I hope that our Prime Minister is getting on well with President Obama, which I think is critical to it all. What I think it is safe to say is that no ally of America is better placed than we are to influence American policy because we are the biggest troop contributor in Afghanistan, because of the special relationship we enjoy with the US, but also the special relationship-oddly enough-that we enjoy with Afghans. That is a function of colonial history and the fact that this is the fourth Afghan war for the Brits. So a lot of Afghans, including the Taliban, have said to me, "You Brits are different from the Americans. We feel we know you". That, of course, cuts both ways. It could be a bad thing as well as a good thing. When you go back to Maiwand in Helmand, they say, "What are you doing here? We’ll finish you off this time". That is a different point. The Brits were the last people to go to the Maiwand area. It could also work in our favour. We do have a role to play, perhaps as a mediator in reconciliation when it comes.

They call us little Satan. That is a role we could play to our advantage. To be literally the great Satan’s outrider-if I could use that terminology-and be the mediator and go-between to perhaps the moderate Taliban is what I would like to see. I think it could happen; I think it is a possibility. It is certainly worth exploring and we haven’t explored that yet.

Q33 Mr Watts: The picture you paint is fairly pessimistic. It seems to indicate that the two sides-the Afghan Government and the alliance-are seeking to find a solution through reconciliation that is unacceptable to the Taliban, and vice versa. You seem to be suggesting what the alliance and the Government could do to move towards some form of reconciliation. Where’s the movement from the Taliban? The point has been raised as to how far the Taliban will move on some of these issues. We have rejected the idea that women’s rights should be part of that. Is there anything that they would accept that is one of the conditions being laid down for reconciliation?

Matt Waldman: Reflecting on the conversations I’ve had with commanders, I don’t think they are going to take it seriously until they think we do. That is a legitimate position to hold from their perspective. They do not believe that the United States has its heart in reconciliation and they are probably right about that, although there are some indications that there may be shifts within the Administration on that issue.

At the moment, from their perspective they are doing well. They know that as a movement they are suffering, that many commanders are being killed and that they are under pressure, but they are extending their reach. As I said earlier, they are killing more foreign soldiers. They know there is fracturing within the international coalition. They also know that the Government are widely loathed and not trusted by the Afghan people. They have sanctuaries inside Pakistan and a lot of support provided to them. They also have what appears to be an infinite supply of recruits. In those circumstances, the real question is, "If we are not going to take it seriously, why should they?" First, we need a degree of international coherence about reconciliation. It does need to be supported by Britain and the United States. Then we need a period of confidence-building, as Michael suggested.

Q34 Mr Watts: Matt, can I push you on this? The one thing the Afghan Government and the alliance have done is set out their aims for reconciliation. What are the aims for the Taliban? Where are they prepared to meet? What are the lines we won’t move on? What are the lines we are prepared to negotiate on?

Matt Waldman: It is not clear. I think you would find a diversity of opinion throughout the movement of their attitude towards negotiations. If you look at Mullah Omar’s Eid statement of last year, he says they will consider any means of bringing the conflict to a conclusion, so long as they are rid of the infidel invaders and have a regime that respects sharia. I think that is a clear indication that they have not ruled out this possibility, as Michael said in his discussions. I think they haven’t. As to learning their exact positions, I don’t think that is going to happen until we step forward to send a signal that we are actually serious about this. They see the military surge; they see us making more efforts to attack them, to dominate territory and so on. The international forces are killing more commanders than previously. So, in those circumstances they do not feel that inclination. We are not giving the process a chance.

James Fergusson: There will be good things. It won’t be the same as last time. That is the thing that we all have in our minds: the Taliban was a disaster 1996–2001. I would dispute the description "disaster". They made some terrible mistakes and they know it. The Taliban are a very broad church, but there is a moderate, intelligent, educated and now much more experienced part of that movement who had to run a country for five years. They learnt a great deal. The thing that worries me most is that you cannot have a repeat of the ethnic slaughtering that went on before 2001, but they say-or some of them say-"We know that we can’t do that again and we are prepared to share power with the other ethnicities in the country". They get it. The problem in any reconciliation negotiation is how do you extract a guarantee that they would behave the next time around? I think they would because it didn’t get them anywhere last time. They have learnt from their mistakes.

Matt Waldman: May I add one point to that briefly? From my discussions with the commanders, I do not believe that these are essentially either extremists or mercenaries, which is what I have heard many times from officials. I believe that the majority are relatively moderate and reasonably rational. I think they believe they are fighting a just war for the independence of their country and to oust a degenerate proxy regime. As I said earlier, some of their objectives converge with ours. So perhaps the picture is not as bleak as one might otherwise expect. Law and order, better government, the departure of foreign troops-there are problems with respect to the Islamic social code that they want to see. But in many ways there is that potential to move forward because of the nature of the movement.

Q35 Andrew Rosindell: The sole justification in the eyes of the British people for British troops being in Afghanistan is our own security. We went there after 11 September with the Americans and others. That is why the British people have in the past supported us being there. Can we honestly say to them today that if we withdrew, the threat of al-Qaeda coming back and using Afghanistan as a base would occur?

James Fergusson: No. There is absolutely no evidence that al-Qaeda even want to come back or that the Taliban would have them back if they did. I’ve had this conversation so many times in Afghanistan and I have not come across one Afghan who gets this justification for our presence there at all. They do not believe it. To them it is an irrelevance. They say, "What’s al-Qaeda?" They point to all the things that we know: the crew of 9/11 were all Saudis; they were all trained elsewhere. Afghanistan had nothing to do with it in their eyes. They hosted al-Qaeda, but that is a different matter.

Q36 Andrew Rosindell: Do you all agree with that?

Matt Waldman: Certainly there are elements of the insurgency that are closely connected to al-Qaeda. I have no doubt that some parts of the Haqqani Network work with individuals who either belong to al-Qaeda or are associated with it. But if you look at American intelligence estimates of the presence of al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan, rarely do they say that they think there are more than 150 operatives. If you talk to the Taliban there is no love lost between them and al-Qaeda. They know that ultimately al-Qaeda was responsible for their downfall. Indeed, Mullah Omar in his last public statement about a month or so ago said, "We want to conduct our foreign policy on the basis that we will not harm foreign countries if they do not harm us". There is not a strong alliance between the Talibs and al-Qaeda. Could you get solid guarantees that they would not work together in the future? Probably not, but this time they will know what the consequences would be were they to support and to harbour extremists of that kind.

Q37 Andrew Rosindell: So, al-Qaeda are operating from where-North Pakistan entirely at the moment?

James Fergusson: Not entirely, no. Horn of Africa? This is an international movement.

Q38 Andrew Rosindell: In that region, I am talking about.

James Fergusson: Well, if I knew that, I would be a very successful journalist.

Matt Waldman: And a very rich one.

Sir Menzies Campbell: And the head of the security services, too.

James Fergusson: The working assumption is that it is Waziristan, it is the border areas on the other side of the border, which even Pakistan doesn’t deny quite as much as it used to. They are not in Afghanistan, that is for sure.

Matt Waldman: Just to go back to the question about what would happen if there was a withdrawal of foreign forces, I think that over time that could help lead to stability if it was in conjunction with a process that was part of a reconciliation move forward. If it was not part of that, if it was a rapid withdrawal, I think there is a strong potential that there would be a civil war. That, of course, then moves us into a different territory where, I think, potentially, legitimate humanitarian considerations would apply. I think that we have some obligation, having intervened in 2001, to ensure that we do not leave a situation that is worse than the one that we found initially. Potentially, there could be security threats to the United Kingdom from a civil war that could spill over into neighbouring countries, including Pakistan.

Jolyon Leslie: I would be as worried about the resurgence of factional interests into that vacuum, which would be inevitable if there was a fast withdrawal, as I would be about al-Qaeda 1 or 2 or 10 or 50 or whatever. I think we should also bear in mind that there is a real ambivalence among Afghans about Arabs in their midst, because of the mujaheddin history. Most ordinary Afghans, who are not even necessarily educated, don’t want them there any more than we do.

There is an element of scaremongering in the thought that if we take our finger out of the dyke, it’s all going to come down and get us. That is unhelpful, because that is not what many Afghans are thinking. After all it is their country, and it is their security that we should be worried about as much as it is the streets of London or wherever.

Q39 Sir Menzies Campbell: But we are taking our fingers out of the dyke, aren’t we? In recent weeks, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have reaffirmed the commitment to withdraw combat troops by 2015. President Obama will almost certainly have to acknowledge his pledge to start withdrawing American forces by the middle of next year; otherwise his prospects of re-election in the United States will be very severely damaged. I just wonder how much of what you have said to us so far you have placed against the timelines that are being imposed upon Britain’s, and indeed NATO’s, presence in Afghanistan.

Matt Waldman: In a conflict such as we see in Afghanistan at the moment, timelines are surely arbitrary. I think it is very unwise to condition actions on the part of the international community against a future that is unknown and unpredictable. In fact, looking at the Government’s submission to you, they say in paragraph 44 that "transition is conditions based, timelines cannot be made", and then in paragraph 19 earlier on they say that the UK cannot provide combat forces beyond 2014; transition will allow this to happen. There is an obvious contradiction there. It is very unwise to seek to make plans about future conditions that we simply cannot predict.

Q40 Sir Menzies Campbell: It reflects the debate in the United States, doesn’t it? It reflects the contents of the recently published Woodward book and the extraordinary debate that took place before President Obama produced a reinvigorated-if that is the right word-strategy.

Matt Waldman: Yes, and I think that the recent disclosures of Mr Woodward’s book seem to indicate that Obama’s decision was made not on the basis of military advice or advice from experts on the region or the conflict, but on the basis of political domestic considerations. I think that that is misjudged, and it looks as if we have gone down a similar route. I think that it is unwise to constrain ourselves, and I believe that it will need a long-term robust military presence. As to the date that that ends, and as to the way in which that presence changes over time, I think that it is unwise to make commitments so far in advance.

Q41 Mike Gapes: I want to take you back, Mr Waldman, in light of what you have just said. In an earlier answer you said that we need to send a signal that we are serious. What signal does it send to the Taliban, or even to people who are not Taliban, but are uncertain about their future, if we set an artificial deadline, to which you have referred, of 2015 for British combat forces no longer to be in Afghanistan, or if President Obama says, "We are going to run down from 2011", which, as you have said, is politically driven?

Matt Waldman: Absolutely. When I said that we need to send a signal that we are serious, I meant serious about reconciliation, but I take your point about seriousness with regard to the military effort. There are arguments on both sides, because we have to accept that international forces inside Afghanistan are part of the problem. There is no doubt that their presence is energising the insurgency for various reasons, particularly the civilian casualties, the abuse of raids and the perception that we are aggressive invading forces, which is going to be difficult to change at this stage in the conflict. On the one hand, there is that set of arguments, but on the other, as I mentioned earlier, there is a real risk of internecine, intensive civil conflict if that withdrawal were to take place too soon.

Q42 Mike Gapes: You and Mr Leslie have both referred to the dangers of leaving too soon and too rapidly, but isn’t a complete British withdrawal of military combat forces within four or five years a rapid process, given the logistics and the preparations that have to be made to get people out of the situation? Isn’t it a rapid process that President Obama describes when he says that from 2011 there will be a significant run-down, which gives the impression that, in fact, the Americans will very soon be starting a complete withdrawal, although Petraeus says something else?

Matt Waldman: Just briefly, before the others answer, I would say that in a sense Britain is one actor, and we know that the United States will not make such a commitment. They will be there, I think, for longer than that period.

Q43 Mike Gapes: Beyond the next presidential election?

Matt Waldman: I would imagine so, but maybe not in the same numbers. In a sense, what Britain does with its troops-we are a fraction of the international force in Afghanistan-won’t be decisive either way. As you’ve seen, we are pulling out of areas of Helmand and we are being replaced by the Americans. So I don’t think that it will be decisive either way.

Q44 Mike Gapes: What about your colleagues? What do they think?

Jolyon Leslie: I would worry that the presence of troops is a metric for success. That is terrifying, because it is now 2010. I don’t think that it should be rapid, but we should withdraw. We should pull back and, as I have said, we should give space, but that depends on what else is going on in the room, outside the room, down the road, in the village, or wherever. We also really need to push the political track, rather than just twiddling our thumbs while President Karzai, bless him, appoints the High Peace Council. There has to be, of course, an element of sovereignty in all this, and I wouldn’t want to propose cutting deals more than they are being cut, but there are other tracks to follow. We shouldn’t forget that the 2014–15 date was immensely relieving to the Afghan people. It didn’t come across to the people with whom I live and work as a harbinger of, "Oh my God, they are cutting and running". It came across as, "Thank goodness, we can get beyond this and we can work things out for ourselves". We need to remember that. Obviously, the domestic constituency here is important, but that was a confidence-building measure and probably quite a sensible one. I am not saying that it was done for those reasons; perhaps it was an unintended consequence.

James Fergusson: I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that we should completely pull out and abandon Afghanistan to its fate. If the military were to go, it wouldn’t mean that the development and civilian agencies have to go, too. I think that such agencies should stay, and it is absolutely essential that they do stay. Furthermore, just think of all that money that is being spent on the military, which could be effectively shifted out and, for heaven’s sake, given to DFID, USAID, or whoever.

Q45 Mike Gapes: Frankly, doesn’t DFID and don’t development agencies require a level of security support and a peaceful environment? If we are going into what Mr Waldman described as a civil war, you might have development in some areas of Afghanistan, but there will be other areas where you couldn’t possibly do it. We had this problem in Iraq at certain times. The development people couldn’t go into certain areas, so the work couldn’t be done. Don’t we require a conditions-based solution here?

Mr Waldman, you said that the counter-insurgency was not succeeding. If the counter-insurgency is not succeeding, and on the other hand a precipitate or quick withdrawal would also lead to a disaster, we are between a rock and a hard place aren’t we? We are in an impossible position.

Jolyon Leslie: Yes. I don’t believe that foreign military can protect development processes. That is a complete delusion. It makes us feel good. It’s good for the MOD. It’s good for-well, it might not be very good for DFID. It is hugely costly. It won’t happen. The Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police or other security sub-forces, whatever they are going to be-hopefully not militias-have to step up to that. From that point of view, yes, it has to be conditions-based. So we have got to make sure that there is a degree of stability for development to move forward. But I would not link military presence with development rolling out, to use an unfortunate term, which is the way it has been portrayed, as if we are there to protect the aid workers. We are not and never have been.

James Fergusson: That’s absolutely right. It’s an anecdote, but in 2007 I was in conversation with some Taliban. They said, "Why are you here again?" I said that we are here to help you develop your country, and the rest of it. They said, "In that case, why do you send soldiers?" I said that the soldiers were here to protect the people who are going to do the development. They looked at each other and said, "But if that is the case, if you just came to us and explained that you wanted to build a road we would have protected you. We would have given you your security ourselves". They were completely sincere. It is not an absurd thought because before 2001 the Taliban and the NGO world worked quite happily in Afghanistan. Many NGOs, believe it or not, worked fine with the Taliban and were allowed to do so very well, so there is some precedent for a relationship between development and the Taliban.

Matt Waldman: On your point on the counter-insurgency, I think that you are right-we are in an extremely difficult position. Transition is fraught with challenges and obstacles and it will take a lot longer than anticipated. Counter-insurgency faces enormous challenges too, for all the reasons that we have mentioned today. That is why I believe that it is right to move forward seriously with reconciliation, to explore the possibilities for it. It is unlikely to succeed. It is a long shot. There is no question about that, because there is so much mistrust. There are so many spoilers on all sides, whether it is the insurgent side, the Government side, political factions inside Afghanistan and the neighbours. It would be extremely difficult even to get an agreement at the end of the day, but we have to pursue that option because there are so few other options and because it is supported by the Afghan people.

Q46 Mr Watts: Can I take you back to the 2015 deadline? It seems to me that you believe that the deadline is arbitrary and has not been helpful. You said that it is not helpful to have British or allied troops on the ground in Afghanistan longer than they need to be there. I understand the point you are making. Is it realistic to believe that in 2015, if we withdraw troops, both the Afghan army and the Afghan police will be capable of policing Afghanistan and looking after security in the country? Won’t we face civil war as a consequence of the vacuum we create when we take the troops out and the Afghan army and police are not able to cope? Is 2015 realistic for both the troops and the police to be able to cope with the situation they are going to find themselves in?

Matt Waldman: That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer to it, but I do know that expectations about the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces are unrealistic. Ahmed Rashid wrote only recently that in his view there is not a single Afghan unit that is able to operate independently. That is despite the efforts to build those forces. Of course, they started too late. They commenced only in 2007 in any seriousness. I think it is widely agreed that the Afghan army has leadership problems, logistical problems and operational problems. It lacks, of course, a major element of Pashtuns in both foot soldiers and officers. So there are huge problems there, and also huge problems in the police, which are widely regarded as corrupt, ineffective or abusive.

To some extent, our withdrawal is predicated on the assumption that we’re going to have forces that are capable of protecting Afghans when we leave, and I just think that that is an unwise assumption to make. My own feeling is, as I said earlier, that given the constraints that we face in terms of transition, it is right to move forward with reconciliation.

Q47 Mr Baron: As a politician, it helps if you are an optimist, but I think a number of us felt from the very start of this enterprise that in getting involved we were ignoring the lessons of history. I would suggest to you that some of your analysis, in my view, is perhaps even too optimistic still. If you look, for example, at the successful counter-insurgency operations-take Malaya, for instance-the four preconditions are control of the borders, credible Government, good troop density levels and the support of the population. I don’t think one of those exists in Afghanistan. Convince me otherwise, please, because I do not believe that we can win this conflict from a military point of view. That has knock-on effects when it comes to reconciliation, because it’s obviously better to negotiate and try to reconcile from a position of strength. Am I being overly bearish about this? Please convince me otherwise if I am.

James Fergusson: I find it very difficult to be optimistic. I’m feeling Cassandra-like about the matter myself. The lessons of history are very important. Just carrying on from the ANP and the ANA, which we’re training up as our exit strategy-well, the Russians did that. They did exactly the same thing. They lasted, I think, about two years before the whole Afghan national army that the Russians had trained up imploded. The moment the funding ran out and the foreigners’ support ran out, it sort of just disintegrated, and people went back to their communities. It’s an artificial construct. We’ve made the same mistake, and I think it’s a tragedy.

The Americans, incidentally-we’ve increasingly referred to it-are pursuing an alternative way of policing the place, which is this question of militias: local militias, from the bottom up, empowering local people to police their own communities. That, of course, is fine if it works and they are kept under control, trained and the rest of it-it could be a good way of policing the place-but that, of course, is where the Taliban came in in 1994. Those private, small, ethnic, tribal militias got out of control and became a law unto themselves. That’s when the Taliban arrived in 1994.

So the stakes are quite high, and it’s not looking too good, I have to say. Around Kandahar province, there are already militias which are acting almost autonomously. In name, they’re answerable to US forces, but they’re not, really. It’s a very dangerous and depressing place to be. I’m afraid I can’t give you much optimistic ammunition.

Matt Waldman: Just to respond to the points on counter-insurgency and achieving a position of strength, I agree with you. I do not believe counter-insurgency in Afghanistan can succeed, and I also believe that that is not accepted by military officials. I think that because, first, we do not have a legitimate, effective host Government. If you go out of the urban areas of Afghanistan, you find that the Government is widely reviled. That is the first problem.

Secondly, I do not believe it’s possible to succeed when insurgents have sanctuary outside of the country and huge support, which is partly provided by elements of the military and the intelligence service of Pakistan. The third major reason is that, as I said earlier, Afghans no longer believe that we are there to defeat the insurgency. If a majority of Afghans actually don’t think we’re there to do that, how can you get them to join your side? It’s not a risk that they’re going to take, especially when they see the insurgency doing so well. We have to accept that some elements of counter-insurgency may be necessary from the point of view of stability, because if you just stopped all COIN operations, that could have adverse consequences. But in terms of whether we need to negotiate from a position of strength, the assumption is that we have to, which is one of the reasons that there is the military surge. I am not sure that I agree with that for a number of reasons. One reason is that the biggest problem that we face in terms of reconciliation is mistrust and enmity between both sides. It is from the Taliban side-especially the leadership and the commanders-and the Government and the warlords who are allied to the Government. A surge is compounding that mistrust, it is creating greater levels of enmity and it is making the chances of negotiations even less likely.

You might look at negotiations theories, the most notable of which is by William Zartman on mutually hurting stalemate. He argues that negotiations are more likely when you have a stalemate where neither side believes that it can escalate to a position of greater strength or victory. I think that, arguably, at the moment both sides believe that they can reach a position of greater strength or victory and we should accept the constraints of the conditions that we face and take that first step towards negotiations. That means trying to build trust between the parties and it means that talks must take place, but at the moment nothing formal, nothing structured, nothing substantive is taking place on that score.

Q48 Sir John Stanley: Between you, you have made a number of references to the Taliban and the insurgents strengthening their position in the past two or three years. To what do you attribute that?

James Fergusson: Partly to our presence.

Q49 Sir John Stanley: Do you think it is directly due to our presence?

James Fergusson: Yes. I agree with Matt, who said that the military presence is energising the insurgency. I refer to what I said earlier about this hard-wired nature, this distrust of foreigners that all Afghans have-not just the Taliban. They are beginning to coalesce around this idea of getting rid of us-they want us out. A large proportion-a majority of Afghans-would like us gone after nine years of meddling in their country. That is the way that it is seen. That is probably the single biggest reason for the insurgency strengthening; if there were no foreigners to fight there would be no fighting.

Jolyon Leslie: A close second would be disaffection with the Government. There is a real lack of patience, and they have no one else to turn to, particularly in areas that are, arguably, the swing areas, which have crossed over relatively recently -in Kunduz, Badghis, Ghor, and other areas. There is no other power structure to turn to and, tactically, whether it is the Taliban, local forces, or other insurgent forces, they have played that brilliantly, because they have stepped into the breach. What we have done is vilify that and said, "No, that isn’t real government. What we can do is bring you real government". That does not cut any ice with Afghans at all, because we have not shown them real government, or we have not delivered it when we promised it, as they see it. Even where there is not head-on kinetic conflict between foreign forces and Afghan opposition, that is often what might swing it.

James Fergusson: Also the bad Government is seen as the foreigners’ fault, so it comes back to reason one.

Matt Waldman: I agree with both those points. On the one hand, the operations that go wrong and harm civilians have generated enormous resentment. Not only does that support the Taliban as a movement but they can get support from Afghans who react against those kinds of operations. Then of course there is this wider perception-something slightly different-that we are in some way seeking to invade or occupy for our own purposes. All Afghans have different ideas about why we might be doing that-perhaps it is to do with Iran or the minerals or resources-but that perception of an invasion that threatens Afghan values and Islamic values is important. As Jolyon said, the abuses that we have seen by the Government and the exclusion from various groups, whether at a national or local level, in terms of political power and resources, has created a great deal of alienation and grievances among those groups that are excluded, who then ally with and support the Taliban.

Finally, we have to take into account Pakistan. There is no question that there has been sustained and substantial support for the movement from Pakistan. That is obviously one of the reasons why they are having the success that they are. Their ability to draw on new recruits is phenomenal. If you consider that recent figures suggest that ISAF is either capturing or killing up to 10,000 insurgents a year, and yet they also estimate that the insurgency is around 35,000 strong, that is a phenomenal ability to regenerate. Then if you consider that they are launching on average this year some 580 attacks a month, it is phenomenal firepower. If you combine those factors that we have talked about, then we are talking about a very formidable enemy.

Q50 Sir John Stanley: Iran? What about technical support from Iran? Do you rate that or do you think it is insignificant?

Chair: May I interrupt? We have just 15 minutes left and I would be grateful if you could keep your answers tight.

James Fergusson: Iran is a whole other issue. It is meddling dangerously in the centre of the country in Hazarajat, with the Shi’ite Hazara minority. When I was there last there was significant concern among the Pashtuns and indeed among some of the Taliban that I was speaking to, that the Iranians were covertly arming the Shia Hazara, who are traditionally always at the bottom of society. Suddenly they have all this money. The funding is coming in and they are buying nice houses, land and the rest of it, and upsetting the social order. It is a warning. It shows you the fragility of Afghan society. It is a very complex, structured thing which is being messed around with by the regional neighbours. Iran is certainly a part of all of that and it has been arming the Taliban, or certain factions with it, for four or five years with anti-aircraft missiles and so on. There is plenty of evidence of that. They are a very big danger.

Matt Waldman: Just to add to that. I spoke with a Taliban commander who had been to Iran and had been trained in a small camp that was not too far from the border with Afghanistan. In fact they did not think very highly of the training. They were not sure. They could not say one way or another whether they believed that the Government were involved, but there was an assumption that the Government or elements of the military had allowed it to happen. There is also evidence that Iran is providing certain military hardware one way or another. The commander mentioned that normally in his district, every year, 80 to 100 people would go to Pakistan for training. He said that this year, 20 or so had gone to Iran and that that was new. So my judgment is that it still remains. It is not a very significant element of the support to the insurgency, but it is increasing and it certainly needs to be monitored.

Q51 Chair: May I take you back to Pakistan? Mr Waldman touched on it just a second a go. What role can Pakistan play in negotiations here?

James Fergusson: Whatever it is, they have to be present. The other problem with the Bonn process in 2002 was that Pakistan’s interests were not represented and since the Taliban-the enemy-was, I think we all agree, a client and a proxy of the ISI, they were never likely to take the setting up of a Government that did not include the Taliban lying down. So the next time round they have to be involved in some way-I don’t know exactly how. There needs to be a regional talking shop of some kind. We have talked about this already, but Pakistan is critical, as is India, as is Iran, as is China and as are the ex-Soviet republics. All the neighbours need to be involved. They all have a stake in this, but Pakistan is the most important.

Q52 Chair: Do you think they can do something?

James Fergusson: Practical? I think they want to be in a position where nothing can happen without their say so. Mr Semple mentioned Mullah Baradar and the Baradar issue earlier on this year. He was a senior Taliban mullah who was picked up and arrested by the ISI. This was the ISI punishing the Taliban and Mullah Baradar operating without their permission. He had been talking to Kabul without the ISI’s knowledge. What happened was he got arrested immediately. So yes, Pakistan, through the ISI, controls what the Taliban do. It is the puppet master in many ways.

Jolyon Leslie: It is not a matter of, "Can they do anything?", but "Will they?" I agree with James that they certainly need to be there. But we also need to bear in mind that a lot of the destruction in Afghanistan in mujaheddin times was done with active Pakistani connivance and support coming through Pakistan-largely from the United States-of course, and people don’t forget that. I think the folk who I work with are deeply ambivalent about what kind of place Pakistan has around the table.

Matt Waldman: I would agree with what has been said. I think that Pakistan needs to have a role in negotiations. I think negotiations are very unlikely to succeed unless Pakistan supports the process. The real question is what can be done to facilitate that.

My view is that although there is an argument that we use US incentives and disincentives better inside Pakistan, the prospects for that are relatively limited. What I think needs to happen is that efforts have to be made to improve the relationship between Pakistan and India. I am not expecting a breakthrough any time soon, and no serious analyst would, but it is worth the effort to try to get that relationship going in the right direction, because so long as Pakistan perceives a threat from India inside Afghanistan, it would be very difficult to get their full co-operation on negotiations. I think it is possible. I hear from sources inside Pakistan that there is now a growing view among the elite that a broad-based solution inside Afghanistan is the right way to go. I think there is an opportunity, but we have to consider the perceived threat from India, which of course means considering India’s presence inside Afghanistan, where it is investing over $1 billion. We need to consider that. I know that India is an ally, and we don’t like to upset the Indians, but we have to consider what implications there are to the mode, format and frame of Indian presence in Afghanistan.

Q53 Ann Clwyd: Following on from that, as you know, there are a large number of Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, right along the border. One of the things that really annoys the Pakistanis is the fact that the international community does not acknowledge the burden that Afghan refugees have been on Pakistan. I don’t see anybody trying to move to resolve that. That’s the first point. Secondly, what kind of threat comes from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan? Are there insurgents within them, as there have been in many other conflicts in the world, where people are over the border, and are also a source of continuing insurgency?

James Fergusson: The Taliban came out of the refugee camps-they created the entire problem. The Taliban were, in some senses, the creation of the war against the Russians. The core Taliban were all orphans who were brought up in madrassahs, quite often within the refugee camps. Of course it is critical. We need to pay more attention to that. If that’s your question, I think we should do so. It is a desperate situation. There is Pakistani prickliness about aid, foreign help and the rest of it, which is part of the Pakistani psyche, and which makes helping very difficult. I don’t have a particular answer on how to deal with it.

Jolyon Leslie: The international community has acknowledged the contribution that Pakistan and Iran have made-Iran accepted millions of Afghan refugees at the time as well. I don’t know what the particular rancour is now.

I also sense an element of finger-pointing. A lot of Afghans will blame the Pakistanis for all their evils now, because of the insurgency, the radicalisation of the youth and all the rest of it. At some point we have to draw a line under that and say, "No. Take responsibility for your own destiny". Likewise, the Pakistanis can’t blame a huge amount on the legacy of a relatively small refugee community, which is pretty much integrated, despite the floods and all the rest of it. They are there to stay, in all likelihood.

Matt Waldman: The only comment I would make is that although there is certainly a humanitarian consideration there, from a security perspective, while I am convinced that the insurgency recruits from refugee camps inside Pakistan, I think that perhaps a more serious issue is the madrassahs, which you find throughout Pakistan.

The clear majority of the commanders I have spoken to have been educated and trained inside such madrassahs, where they are exhorted daily to fight international forces inside Afghanistan. Many of the madrassahs provide not merely a religious education, although that is a component, but also a military component-the individuals will go to a camp to be trained. People who are at those madrassahs for some years are exhorted every day to fight, and it is considered a religious duty to do so. That I think is one of the reasons why there are so many people going to fight the jihad inside Afghanistan, and doing so at very considerable personal risk.

Q54 Ann Clwyd: Can I talk to you about the goals that the British Government have set themselves? Are any of them achievable? Are the British public being sold a pup by successive Governments? Are there any pluses to what we have already achieved in Afghanistan? You say that women’s rights are not part of the mission, but good governance, human rights and the rule of law should also include women’s rights-perhaps there are different mission statements from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Do you think there is any conflict there? I would like your reaction.

Jolyon Leslie: As an aid worker, I think that the British Government speak in many tongues. It is very confusing-to my colleagues on the ground, whose country it happens to be, and to me as an outsider. It isn’t all bad and we shouldn’t be too morose about it, but let’s cut to the chase and be honest about what we have achieved, even if it is very partial. To some extent, we should fall on our collective mandates, pens or whatever and be honest that progress is very limited, and have a no-nonsense approach as to how to get out of it.

I absolutely agree with Matt-when reading through the paper distributed to us, I was dismayed at its mixture of triumphalism and delusion; again, I use the word "triumph". It is not actually about that. Get out, listen to people. The real issues are in the subtext-not in that report, but in the subtext on the ground.

My worry is that we are beginning to believe our own assumptions. It is going round and round and becoming a self-fulfilling delusion. I don’t mean this in a particularly negative sense, but someone needs to have the courage of their convictions and say, "Stop, let’s put a spotlight on some of these goals, on the benchmarks that we have set in the London conference and on the other milestones", and ask whether we are doing well enough. We need to have a radical re-look at how to get out of it. Because it’s becoming a hole-it is very difficult to back out of.

James Fergusson: In the end, all that matters actually is America in this-it is not us. We are, I’m afraid, pipsqueaks on the back of a much bigger machine. It is what America decides to do that matters.

We are, I believe, in a position to try and influence America and American thinking, which is what we ought to be doing. That is our most useful role, to steer America towards and maybe help them with this reconciliation idea. At the moment, the Americans haven’t made their mind up-that is the problem. They cannot make their minds up about the Taliban. Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said in Islamabad in March, on consecutive days, in public, that the Taliban are a "scourge" and a "cancer", and that they are clearly part of society these days. Well, it can’t be both. They must make their minds up, otherwise there will never be coherence in the policy.

Matt Waldman: I agree with both James and Jolyon. I think that one of our principal priorities now is to try to move events forward towards a peaceful resolution of this conflict. Actually, there are those analysts in Kabul whom I know and respect who believe that the principal objective of the international community should be to seek to avert a civil war. I do not believe that escalating military operations will facilitate that. That is more likely to compound the enmities, intensify the conflict and take us in that direction. I think that we need to consider those risks, not to think about victory but about how we might achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and to move in that direction.

Q55 Chair: I have three colleagues who still want to ask questions. Are you happy to stay for another 10 minutes?

All Witnesses: Yes.

Q56 Mr Frank Roy: Mr Leslie, I would like to take you back to earlier when you were talking about the need to win hearts and minds in the villages, which, at the end of the day, is where it will really matter. I noticed, Mr Waldman, that you said, "There has been a colossal failure by the international coalition to empathise with ordinary Afghans and act accordingly". Bearing that, and what has been said, in mind, what therefore can the United Kingdom specifically do to win those hearts and minds, and what is it not doing that, for example, the Taliban are doing?

Jolyon Leslie: My worry is that it seems that one of the central planks of winning hearts and minds is delivering aid. That is the way it is presented, and it is not entirely but largely restricted to the area that was in our patch, which was Helmand. We have obviously failed at that, because we have not won hearts and minds through culverts, irrigation channels, shuras, training programmes or whatever the hell it is. It is not an absolute statement, and I am sure that there have been successes and some brave men and women who have tried to pursue that. Afghans will not be bought with aid projects; it has got too serious. They might have been bought with aid projects-perhaps not bought, but they might have been persuaded with aid projects, as they were in the mujaheddin times when I was working with the UN, when we could bring some degree of stability by bringing some assistance into the equation-but it has gone too far for that, at any rate in the areas where I have worked and that I know anything about. We are a little bit stuck, and all that vocabulary is rather 2004. It is just not going to work like that. In the middle of Marjah, where most of the population has been forced out, areas have been laid waste, vineyards have been laid waste and houses have been blown up, how can we dare to talk about development? It is a scorched earth policy, a lot of it.

There is a time and a place, and I am not saying that it is always impossible. Maybe around the outskirts of Kandahar, as part of this new kind of on-off strategy, there is a way to bring development in there to build some confidence, but it is not going to make people cross the lines, or build any great confidence. Also, that is often being done through national programmes, which are pumped as a success of the regime that people are very ambivalent about. Even if it brings a physical benefit to a woman or a man in downtown Kandahar, they might feel very ambivalent about it because of the way it is delivered and the way it is presented. That is one of the reasons why aid has become such a target, unfortunately-tragically. Even in the mujaheddin times, when it was highly politicised, aid was not to that extent such a target. It is now-build a school; we’ll burn it, and so on.

James Fergusson: It is entirely our fault. General Petraeus has said that our most important ammunition in this war is money. He has simply linked aid-a neutral thing with which we are supposed to be winning hearts and minds-

Q57 Mr Roy: How do we change the narrative?

James Fergusson: Delink the military and the civilian, but it is so late. The story is nearly told-I am afraid it is finished. We know when it is going to end, which is 2015 in military terms. The only positive thing we can take out of this is that the next time we do this we need to do it better and differently. I am guessing the relationship between the civilians and the military is going to be absolutely central to that, and I think we got that wrong in Afghanistan.

Matt Waldman: I would say that we should not be seeking to win Afghan hearts and minds. I do not believe it is possible in current circumstances to win the hearts and minds of a majority of the population. If you consider the natural inclinations of ordinary Afghans, the suspicion of foreigners, the military activities that have harmed so many Afghans, the way in which we are supporting a degenerate regime that is utterly corrupt and ineffective and the pressure from the Taliban and the successes that they are having, I do not believe it is realistic to expect British forces to win hearts and minds. I think we need to reframe our objectives, minimising the harm that we cause. It would be a legitimate objective, while at the same time making greater efforts to listen to Afghans, to appreciate their interests and their aspirations for the future, and to try to adapt our policy and international policy accordingly. As far as I see it, most Afghans not only want better services and so on, they want law and order and peace. The conclusion one has to reach is that we need to take steps to achieve that. Of course, part of that has to be trying to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Q58 Rory Stewart: In summary, you all seem to agree that we are not going to win a counter-insurgency strategy. You all have some interesting ideas about how we can decrease the likelihood of a civil war, with suggestions about what can be done, from Pakistan to police and army training to development. At the same time, there is something I am a bit confused about, which is the debate about time limits. If it’s true that we can’t win a counter-insurgency strategy, if it’s true that all we’re trying to do now is slightly decrease the likelihood of a civil war, from our point of view as British politicians, how long are we supposed to be putting hundreds of our troops, billions of pounds into this conflict? If that is all it’s about, does it make sense for you to say, "We’ve got to stick around; we shouldn’t have a deadline of 2015"? Or should in fact we be honest with the American and British public by saying that if it is that kind of humanitarian engagement-if it’s all about civil war-then $100 billion a year of US expenditure, thousands of coalition lives is not the game we should be playing?

James Fergusson: Listen to you. Here we are in year nine of our engagement in Afghanistan and you are still talking about why we are there. It is amazing, isn’t it? Here we all are. We don’t know. My advice would be to go back to what Petraeus has said. He attempted to define it by saying we are there to make sure that Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for an attack by al-Qaeda again. End of story. It is not about humanitarian minds. As a British politician, you surely have to explain that to your constituents-that that is what we are there for. British troops are not dying for women’s rights in Afghanistan, not to make their lives better, not to bring democracy. All of those things were freight brought on board after we turned up there in the first place and have nothing to do directly with the threat from al-Qaeda. We need to be speaking to the Taliban to see what guarantees we can get out of Mullah Omar that he won’t let al-Qaeda back into the country to use it as a base. We need to back up those talks with drones and our own special forces and the rest of it, but we don’t need to be there militarily any longer.

Matt Waldman: To answer your point about the timelines. I simply do not believe that it is sensible from a strategic point of view to lay out your plans for the future before the enemy. There are very few circumstances in which that would be sensible in conflict situations. There are two further reasons why it is not sensible. One is that if it is believed by the enemy, it may incentivise those who believe that they can outlast the internationals because the internationals are going to withdraw. Maybe they will envisage a scenario such as seen after the 1980s when the regime was unable to last for too long. It may incentivise and give succour to those individuals in the insurgency who think that time is on their side. The other thing is a question of leverage. We have very few cards left when it comes to negotiations. One of them is the phased withdrawal of international forces. It strikes me that that is something that we should use in the course of negotiations, rather than stipulating in advance.

Q59 Rory Stewart: What costs are you prepared to take? The longer we delay, the more lives we lose, the more money we spend. How many lives, how much money are you prepared to spend on this idea of leverage?

Matt Waldman: Foreign troops are there and we know they are not going to withdraw immediately. There will inevitably be some sort of phased withdrawal. What I think is wrong is to set that out, to indicate what that will be in advance. One needs to consider the conditions and wait until there are negotiations under way, which I hope will happen. Then there is a possibility that that phased withdrawal will form part of that process, rather than being conducted unilaterally and in advance.

Jolyon Leslie: I have to say not a day too soon. I don’t think that we should be discussing whether, we should we be discussing where and how we are pulling back in the next month and the next six months. It needs to become a reality; it should not be a principal option up our sleeve. I think that is the only way that people will find the space to get on with their lives and perhaps even reach peace themselves.

James Fergusson: I agree.

Q60 Mr Baron: May I focus on the end game itself? Even the most sceptical of us do not believe that there should be a rapid withdrawal; that would leave a vacuum and it would cause more problems. I think that there is a moral obligation, which was brought out by Matt or someone else, that we try to leave a semblance of order and tidy up the mess that we have created by going in there in the first place. You are suggesting that there is no real chance of success in negotiation, but if we accept that the counter-insurgency operation is not going to work and that the longer we are there, the worse it is going to get from our point of view-because we are seen as an occupying force and the high civilian casualty rates are going to exponentially increase the hostility towards us-why are we delaying withdrawing and why are we delaying negotiating? Why do we not come out and openly negotiate with the Taliban in their various guises and press the military and the national Governments to do that?

Matt Waldman: I couldn’t agree more. I think that that needs to happen now. We need to make it clear that we are willing to engage with representatives of the Quetta Shura right now, and that there may be legitimate grievances on the other side. If the grievances are legitimate, then let’s hear them, and let’s consider whether their demands are so unreasonable. Maybe they are inconsistent with what Afghans and the international forces want, but we do not know that, because we have not sat down and listened and argued about the future of Afghanistan. That needs to happen.

Just to clarify one point, I am not talking about the withdrawal itself-that needs to happen and it is inevitable. What I am disputing is the wisdom of pre-announcing it; I do not think that it benefits us. It may even benefit the enemy as perceived by international forces, so that is the only point of dispute. I agree that the withdrawal needs to take place. It may be difficult to negotiate if we are in the course of a withdrawal, which is one of the reasons why I think that talks at least should begin now.

Q61 Mr Baron: Finally, on the issue of negotiation, given the scepticism and lack of credibility as regards President Karzai’s Government and the US stance, what can we do to encourage that negotiation and encourage that reconciliation? We know about the difficulty on the ground, with the regional power plays and so forth, but you have the US not willing to-publically at least-countenance negotiations, Karzai is not trusted and so on. We are painting quite a bleak picture here. Meanwhile, troops are dying.

James Fergusson: Which is why it’s urgent.

Matt Waldman: I would say at least two things, one of which is to recognise that our obsession with killing insurgents does not help. It does not take us closer to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In fact, it seems that many, many commanders are being killed and those who are replacing them are more hard-line. They tend to be younger. The average age of insurgents is about 24 or 25. They are probably less inclined to support negotiations. In fact, the one area where successes are claimed may be undermining the prospects for a negotiated peace. Recognising that highly aggressive, kinetic operations against insurgency may not lead us in the right direction, a robust military presence in certain areas of the country is perhaps appropriate, but I think that we have to consider that element.

The other side is something that Michael has mentioned, which is an independent mediator-one who is trusted by the various sides to the conflict. It astonishes me that this has not happened yet. There needs to be a mediator-probably several mediators-who are facilitating structured talks: not merely contacts, as has happened for several years now, but structured talks about how the conflict might be resolved.

Q62 Mr Baron: We haven’t talked about the economy as it is. We know that international aid features very highly and so forth, but we have-correct me if I’m wrong-something like 9 million people unemployed in Afghanistan. Some would say that you can earn more working for two months with the Taliban than the average national salary. That may address your point: we may be killing them off, but there’s no shortage of new recruits to the Taliban. It’s a complete tangent, maybe, as a question, but how important is the economy? Or is this all about the West being seen as an occupying force, etc., etc., and political credibility?

Jolyon Leslie: It is amazing that it has an economy anyway, in some ways. Often, I think we don’t distinguish between the aid economy and the actual economy. It’s a very robust economy, whether it’s licit or illicit. I think life goes on and the private sector has boomed-not quite to the extent that is presented, perhaps, in the western press. I think people are worried about unemployment, but I don’t think Taliban recruitment and what you can earn with the insurgency are a major issue. I think people are more worried about what they are actually going to do with their lives, once the aid money stops being pumped in. Also, how much of it is being skimmed off?

In some ways, the economic boom has become a very negative message for many people, because they see this egregious corruption and they don’t feel they can do anything about it. And we’re condoning it, because to some extent it’s our money, or it’s being perceived as our money, whether through the militia, the security companies or other means. But it is a worry.

We present the narcotics economy as being, as it were, on the Taliban side of the lines, and we really need to rethink that. The lines of trafficking and benefit run right through the middle of Kabul, and most Afghans know that. We really need to call a spade a spade. It’s often presented as if the insurgency is being driven by the narcotics industry. An awful lot of the Afghan economy is being driven by narcotics. It’s not just confined to the dark corners of the country. We need to hold the Government accountable for that.

Chair: The Division bell is ringing, which means that we must draw to a close. I thank you all very much indeed. It is very much appreciated. There are, unbelievably, still some questions we haven’t asked you. We will drop you a line, and perhaps if you could respond, that would be appreciated. Thank you very much.