The UK's Foreign Policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan

Written evidence from Gerard Russell [1]

- Seen in terms of its relationship with the United States, the UK has had some notable successes in Afghanistan- and some setbacks. Its overall participation in the Afghanistan campaign helped to solidify its reputation as a strategic partner for the United States. It has influenced American policy constructively. (Paragraphs 1-3)

- The strategy of carving out separate provinces, and separate policy leads, for the various nations of the Coalition has however had largely negative results both for this relationship and for the overall effort. There should have been one person, based in Kabul, to lead a unified international effort with a minimum of interference from national Governments. (Paras 4-6)

- US Ambassador Eikenberry is correct: expanding foreign assistance increases Afghan dependence. The task in Afghanistan is for Afghans to achieve a political and social equilibrium which would not need to be routinely enforced by foreign troops. In this sense, the task of the international community in Afghanistan is now the orderly management of its own decline. Localised solutions will probably follow. (Paras 7-18)

- Rapid turnover of civilian and military personnel resulted in loss of expertise and frequent changes in strategy. For future engagements, the UK should devise (in partnership with other nations) a more effective method of managing expertise. (Paras 19-23)

- Such future engagements should not be based on the idea that war can be an instrument of reform – or that international bureaucracies, with whatever resources and noble intentions, can be a substitute for indigenous political leadership. Slow and persistent nudges towards reform are more effective than the short-term allocation of vast resources, energy and attention to one country at a time. (Para 24)

The United Kingdom’s role in Afghanistan

1. The United States is providing 80 per cent of the Coalition troops in Afghanistan and a very substantial part of the overall international expenditure there. Other countries are in charge of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in at most two provinces each. The United Kingdom meantime provides a fraction of the troops and development assistance in Afghanistan and is in charge of only one PRT.

2. Clearly therefore the UK’s goals in Afghanistan are going to be delivered through its relationship with the United States. Indeed the most obvious benefit that the UK derives from its deployment in Afghanistan is a strengthening of that relationship.

3. Seen in this light, the United Kingdom’s strategy has had some notable successes. It has been identified for some time as a relative pessimist on the prospects for a purely military solution in Afghanistan, and an advocate of localized solutions and openness to the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban. These are gradually becoming orthodox doctrines among commentators in America, though not yet official US policy.

4. On the other hand the approach taken in Afghanistan of allocating provinces and issues to ‘lead nations’ – the UK was responsible for drugs, and the security of Helmand province – was bound to introduce tension into the US-UK relationship. The system also has other flaws: it has encouraged the perception of the Coalition effort in Afghanistan as one that was divided between different nations, all with their own separate policies. Not all nations have capabilities appropriate to their particular provinces. Aid disbursement has been skewed, with more resources going to provinces adopted by larger donors, and other provinces being wholly neglected.

5. The array of international interlocutors that engage with President Karzai - Ambassadors of the five or six most important troop contributors, especially of course the US Ambassador; the military and civilian chiefs of NATO in Afghanistan; the UN and EU special representatives, the special representatives of 15 nations, and apparently the head of the Central Intelligence Agency [2] - can likewise cause confusion. When those individuals fail to deliver the same message to President Karzai, not only is the message itself undermined but so is the credibility of the international community.

6. As Ambassador Eikenberry has suggested in two leaked cables published in November 2009 in the New York Times, [3]   there should be one main civilian interlocutor with President Karzai to ensure one clear message from the international community - with the power to deliver on what they promise. The idea of having Paddy Ashdown as a UN "super- envoy" was one way to have arranged this. As an alternative, the US Ambassador himself could fill this role - Ambassador Eikenberry’s own suggestion. Although it would mean some loss of our bilateral national clout in Afghanistan, I believe that if the US ever chooses to pursue this idea, the UK should endorse it for the sake of the success of the wider mission.

Options for future strategy in Afghanistan

7. Even if foreign forces could secure Afghanistan today, they would not be able to secure it for ever. In the long-term, it is the Afghan Government which has to achieve the social and political equilibrium which can sustain permanent peace.

8. This means that the major challenge for the stabilisation effort is that of Afghan leadership. Can the country’s leaders inspire its people to risk their lives to defeat the insurgency? If they cannot, then it is hard to imagine that foreigners can inspire them to do so - especially when those foreigners are present so briefly, and are not perceived as having delivered on past promises. The presence of foreign forces may therefore be a necessary condition for peace in Afghanistan but it is obviously not a sufficient one.

9. Ambassador Eikenberry (again, in his leaked cables) said that ‘an increased US and foreign role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependency’. He suggests that the failures of the Afghan Government in confronting corruption and improving governance are failures not just of capacity, but also of will. In his assessment, ‘Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden... He and much of his circle do not want the US to leave.’ [4]

10. The widespread perception - which President Karzai himself has sometimes seemed to share - that the United States and not the Afghan Government is responsible for the fight against the Taliban, must inevitably detract from Afghan willingness to sacrifice their lives in that fight. Perhaps it is for this reason that President Najibullah is sometimes regarded as having succeeded better after the 1988 withdrawal of Soviet forces than before - surviving for over two years against an insurgency that had both Pakistani and Western backing.

11. A large-scale international presence in Afghanistan specifically stands in the way of Afghan peacemaking efforts, in four ways: first, because it reduces pressure on the Afghan political elite to achieve peace; second, because the Afghan Government cannot deliver on any peace deal for as long as security strategy is in the hands of the US Government; third, because the Taliban are less likely to make peace with a Government that they denounce as being under foreign domination; and fourth, because the Taliban believe that the current balance of power is a temporary one and that when US forces leave, they will be able to get a better deal.

12. My belief therefore is that an early move by the international community towards a long-term, smaller, sustainable presence - oriented towards training and airstrikes in support of Afghan ground forces, rather than direct combat - will probably on balance, in the long run, benefit Afghanistan.

13. It carries significant risks - of increased insecurity and internal conflict, and of the Taliban taking over the territory vacated by international forces. The Coalition’s current strategy, however, can no more than postpone these risks. It does not eliminate them. They are risks that are better faced while international troops remain in Afghanistan - before security there grows even worse, and publics in troop-contributing nations lose patience with continued losses.

14. The Taliban are already extending their influence over territory across southern and eastern Afghanistan - not primarily because the Afghan military lacks capacity (it always did), but because the Taliban have more staying-power and determination than the Afghan Government’s civilian officials and police. Ceasing to contest this space with them would not necessarily mean that their movement would become a greater threat to the Kabul Government. With new responsibilities, their perspective will change and they will themselves realise that they have something to lose from continued conflict; they will have the genuine prospect of gaining something from peace.

15. Meantime the Afghan army could concentrate on protecting pro-Government areas, and strategic locations (main cities, border crossings and the highways) and be backed up by Coalition airpower and Special Forces. If the UK wished, it could also be part of this continued effort.

16. When there are fewer casualties being sustained in Afghanistan, perhaps we could hope that financial aid to the Afghan Government will be made more truly conditional on improvements in the way it rules Afghanistan.

17. Whatever strategy is adopted, much power will probably remain with or devolve to local power-brokers at the expense of the central government. This gives rise to some concern. Ambassador Francesc Vendrell has said: "Having failed dismally to make the Afghan people our allies, we will inevitably abandon them to a combination of Taliban in the south and the warlords in the north." [5] It seems to me very likely that warlords will dominate the north of Afghanistan; they already do. That is highly dispiriting for those who know how their behaviour was in the 1980s and 1990s and, in many cases, how it has remained since 2001. But the international community has rarely acted in concert to offer them effective incentives to improve their behaviour - or taken action against those who continue to abuse human rights or engage in criminal activity. This is one approach that should surely be tried.

18. I have made little reference here to Pakistan, because I know that other witnesses will speak with more authority than I on that subject. The overall goal must be to induce Pakistan to act against the Afghan Taliban and actively to deny them shelter; or, at least, for Pakistan to intervene in favour of a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Without this, peace in Afghanistan will be considerably less likely.

Lessons learned from Afghanistan

19. The single biggest lesson that I learned from my own experience in Afghanistan, and prior to that in Iraq, is that knowledge of the language, history, politics and culture of a country is essential for the kind of mission that Coalition members have undertaken there. In both cases the US, UK and other countries have attempted to build or rebuild or reform the political structures of the country, and install new leadership. They have not therefore been able to deliver development goals just through building an effective partnership with Iraqi or Afghan actors, but have had to perform themselves the role that a national Government would usually undertake - understanding the people’s political aspirations, communicating with them directly, and so forth. This makes Dari and Pashto language skills, and the ability to move around the country, particularly important.

20. Furthermore, because consistent strategy and building relationships of trust is so important, personnel should be encouraged to stay involved with Afghanistan for as long as possible. Commanders of British forces in Helmand province have rotated every six months, and civilian staff at the PRT likewise can move on after six months; staff at the Embassy in Kabul stay between one and two years. A recent report on staffing at the United States Embassy in Kabul remarked, "The one-year assignment scenario limits the development of expertise, contributes to a lack of continuity, requires a higher number of officers to achieve the administration's strategic goals, and results in what one former ambassador calls 'an institutional lobotomy’". [6]

21. My colleagues in Afghanistan - in both the British Embassy and the United Nations - included some of the most talented people I have ever worked with. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to excel, among its equivalents internationally, in the quality and range of language training that it offers. For a mission in Afghanistan, however, and similar missions where a granular knowledge of public opinion and the daily life of ordinary people is necessary, the FCO and other Departments will need to have access to new reserves of expertise at short notice. It might be sensible for the FCO (for example) to expand its recruitment of temporary contracted staff. This would enable it to employ people who have already spent time in Afghanistan as consultants, journalists, aid workers and so forth, and who in some cases have already learned Dari or Pashto. It might also want to encourage secondments to outside organisations working in Afghanistan, such as the United Nations.

22. The FCO should certainly aim to have an incentive structure which encourages and rewards staff to maximise their contact with Afghans, rather than dedicating their time (for example) to preparing reports that are to be sent back to capitals. Among the Embassy’s objectives, for instance, there should be a target for the number and range of Afghans whose opinions the Embassy will hear. Its own communications effort should be aimed at an Afghan audience.

23. As a broader lesson from the Afghanistan case, I believe that the UK Government should maintain, in partnership with other Governments, a database of expertise, along the lines of the database of civilian experts already maintained by the UK’s Stabilisation Unit (SU). That SU database divides people by specialism, according to whether they have experience in demobilisation, community engagement, and so forth. There should be a similar database divided by expertise, so that HMG and other Governments can be sure that in the event of a crisis happening anywhere in the world, they have access to at least some people who have long-standing experience of the particular place where that crisis is happening.

24. Even when such a system is in place, the international community should be modest about its ability to build governance structures (as opposed to assisting ones that already exist). Its relative success in the former Yugoslavia is beginning to look like an exception when set beside the criticism of its efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and even East Timor. We can compare with these cases, other countries where the UK and its allies have encouraged slow and gradual reform. Such an approach is much better suited to our post-imperial capacities and inclinations. It also avoids the ironic dilemma we face in Afghanistan - where the scale of our political investment has made the Afghan Government feel that its international allies need it more than it needs them.

1 October 2010


[1] Gerard Russell, MBE was Political Counsellor at the British Embassy in Kabul 2007-8 and Senior Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in 2009. He is now a Research Fellow in the Afghanistan/Pakistan programme at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

[2] Siobhan Gorman, Wall Street Journal , 24 August 2010

[3] http://documents.nytimes.com/eikenberry-s-memos-on-the-strategy-in-afghanistan . Paragraph 4, tiret 1 of the first cable.

[4] Paragraph 1 of the first cable, ibid

[5] Quoted for example in the New Republic , 23 August 2010.

[6] Office of the Inspector General at the US State Department, report ISP-I-10-32A, February 2010