Afghanistan: Transition & Partnership

  • 28 Mar. 2011
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  • Last updated: 02 Apr. 2011 19:17

NATO Senior Civilian Representative, Ambassador Mark Sedwill, delivered a speech to the Asia Society in New York on 28 March 2011.


Thank you. It is a great privilege to be here at the Asia Society and to have the chance to speak before such a distinguished audience as I reflect on my time in Afghanistan, first as British ambassador and then as NATO's representative. But while I will look back, I will do so only to explain the context in which we must move ahead to accept the challenge set out here last month by Secretary Clinton of complementing the  military and civilian surges of 2009-10 with a political surge through to 2014.

Regaining the Initiative

My first year in Afghanistan – 2009 – was tough. Security, which had worsened for several years, continued to deteriorate as the insurgents gained momentum, deepening their grip in the south and east and spreading into the north and west, regenerating during the winter months in their sanctuaries in the lawless border areas of Pakistan. Governance had stalled. The controversial 2009 presidential election was internally divisive, and damaged trust between the international community and the Afghan political leadership.

General Stan McChrystal's review described the situation as “serious and deteriorating” and warned of campaign failure. Public support across the alliance was eroding fast: despite doubling the US commitment, President Obama's West Point speech in December 2009 was widely interpreted as signalling for the exit, beginning this summer, and several Alliance leaders were pressing publicly for reconciliation as an alternative to rather than a component of a successful campaign. It was clear to me, as NATO's political representative, that 2010 was not only a pivotal year but the last opportunity to re-boot the campaign, with NATO's summit in Lisbon last November as the moment of decision.


With the military surge just beginning, our effort to regain the initiative started this time last year in central Helmand with Operation Moshtarek - “Together” - the first truly partnered major offensive. The iconic moment was the liberation of the derelict town of Marjeh after years of Taliban control so complete that their flag was flying over the district centre. We found there a people traumatized, less by the Taliban, who were repressive but orderly, than by the years beforehand when they had suffered under a brutal and predatory police force led by local tribal warlords, who ran the drugs trade and could buy influence in Kabul. At a shura I attended there with President Karzai a few weeks later, the people warned that they would take up arms and invite back the Taliban if that police force returned. It was a pivotal moment. As President Karzai said afterwards, in areas like Marjeh, people preferred the Taliban to his government and regarded him as a puppet: a point he was to repeat publicly and which has affected his political outlook since.

I was in Marjeh again last week and found a town transformed: a bustling market, a proper road, street lights, schools and clinics opening, wheat not poppy in the fields, a new elected district council and a police force recruited locally. When I talked to people in the market, they explained that, while they appreciated schools, clinics and roads, their allegiance was determined by the core functions of the state: security and the rule of law provided by accountable institutions. This is a crucial lesson.

As General David Petraeus took over as COMISAF last summer, the campaign moved to Kandahar. We cleared the insurgents from the key districts to the west of the city – the birthplace of Mullah Omar and thus the cradle of the Taliban. Kandahar is critical: as most Afghans will tell you, if you hold Kandahar and Kabul, you hold Afghanistan. Kabul was calm throughout 2010, primarily because of the intense tempo of intelligence-led and partneredspecial forces operations against the networks which target the capital: notably the Haqqanis from their base in north Waziristan. Elsewhere, we held the insurgency's momentum.

The Kandahar operations were the first in which Afghan security forces outnumbered international forces and truly led much of the fighting, for which the NATO training mission (NTM-A) deserves real credit. In NTM-A's first year, the Afghan security forces exceeded their growth targets, implemented new programmes to raise quality and institutional capability, and sharply improved training effectiveness.

However, progress was not just due to bigger and better Afghan and international forces. In Gizab district, on the borders of Daykundi and Uruzgan, the locals expelled the Taliban and kept them out with help from US special forces' village stability teams – small groups of soldiers who live and operate among the people. This was perhaps the best example of one of the most important innovations of 2010: the Afghan Local Police. For the same reason that it took months of effort to gain the people's confidence in Marjeh, in the contested rural areas, Afghans want to be secured by locals and policed by outsiders. And initiatives like this pass the most important test: they are Afghan-authentic. As Lawrence of Arabia said a century ago: “it is their country, their way and our time is short”.

Impressive though all the progress was, it came at a high cost. 2010 was the bloodiest year so far for the Alliance and for Afghan civilians. Several thousand Afghan civilians were killed, most by the insurgents through the indiscriminate violence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), such as roadside bombs, which threaten children especially. For ISAF, one civilian casualty is one too many: despite doubling our forces and our operational tempo, the UN recorded that we had reduced civilian casualties by a quarter. The effort continues.

Governance and Development

Although we inevitably focus on security, most Afghans are preoccupied with poverty. Infant mortality is staggering: one in five children die before their 5th birthday, not through violence, but through bad water and bad air. Diarrhoeal diseases kill almost a third of Afghan infants and respiratory diseases over a quarter. Although there have been dramatic improvements in access to healthcare and education, however much we achieve by 2014, Afghanistan will remain a poor and underdeveloped country for many years to come. Indeed, that is one definition of success: if in 2015, we are talking not about violence, security and troop numbers, but poverty, healthcare and development, we will be talking about the issues which affect most Afghans most of the time.

Governance remains just as challenging. Afghanistan is lodged at the bottom of the transparency index, civil service capability is weak, the rule of law is absent or predatory in many areas, many district posts are vacant and half the district governors lack offices, transport, facilities and staff. There have been improvements: several of the key ministers have made progress against corruption and in building administrative capacity, notably in cleaning up the notorious customs service, which has also strengthened government revenues.

President Karzai has dissolved private security companies associated with members of the government or their families. Raising police salaries  above subsistence levels has helped too. And the economic highlight of 2010 was the unearthing of Afghanistan's extraordinary and diverse mineral wealth. While the opportunities are obvious, we mustn't ignore the risks: without effective efforts to forestall corruption, this too could become a source of conflict. Fortunately, one of the most effective ministers is in charge of this portfolio.

Arguably, 2010's worst moment was the Kabul Bank crisis which brought the Afghan financial system to the brink of collapse. Afghanistan's biggest bank handles the salaries of most Afghan public servants, including the security forces. Investigations continue in Afghanistan and abroad into allegations of money-laundering and other criminal activity, so I must be choose my words carefully: but, in effect, the bank had been turned into a pyramid scheme at the expense of the millions of small depositors who had entrusted it with their savings.

The IMF is demanding a credible plan to recover assets and restructure the bank in order to approve the next IMF programme, which itself is necessary for other multilateral and bilateral donors to continue funding the Afghan government. This is vital to maintain progress in the counterinsurgency campaign and transition, and to have any prospect of reaching the London and Kabul Conference targets for delivering 50% of foreign aid through Afghan government systems and aligning 80% of it with their priority programmes.

Transition & Partnership

This brings me back to the wounding comment by the Marjeh elder. Exerting sovereign authority is central to President Karzai's political agenda. On occasion, we have seen outbursts of frustration with the international community and nationalistic comments which have caused our publics to ask why we are sacrificing so much for a partner who appears not to want us.

While, as a diplomat, I would always prefer disagreements to be handled in private, I recognise that everyone has their own politics. As one senior Afghan reminded us recently, any close but somewhat adolescent relationship involves shouting.

The reason we get through these ups and downs is that we agree on the strategic goal: an Afghanistan which can secure and govern itself. The main diplomatic focus for the past year has been how to achieve that goal through transition and partnership. At the Lisbon Summit, the Alliance agreed to transition the lead responsibility for security country-wide to the Afghans by the end of 2014, beginning this spring. Last week, at the Afghan New Year, in a speech to the National Military Academy's graduation ceremony (Afghanistan's West Point), President Karzai announced the first seven areas, which cover 20-25% of the population and all four points of the compass to maintain regional and ethnic balance. We have designed transition to be an irreversible, conditions-based process, through which we gradually hand responsibility to the Afghan security forces as their capabilities grow, underpinned by adequate Afghan-authentic development and governance, notably (remember Marjeh) the rule of law.

As I mentioned earlier, despite all our efforts, governance had flat-lined for several years. In my view, the incentives weren't right. For years, in the absence of Afghan capability, we have delivered public services ourselves through a variety of what President Karzai describes as “parallel structures” creating an unhealthy dependency trap and what some analysts describe as the “rentier state”, where Afghan governance focuses on deploying patronage.

Transition shifts the incentives as we get Afghan civil governance off the “welfare” of letting us deliver services for them and onto the “work” of delivering services themselves enabled by international technical assistance.

To be irreversible, transition also needs long-term commitment, delivered by NATO through the Enduring Partnership signed at the Lisbon Summit, with other bilateral agreements to follow, notably the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership to be concluded this summer. Lisbon has often been characterized as resetting the clock from 2011 to 2014 – the deadline for completing the transition process. There is certainly some truth in that and, as the person who stuck the date “2014” in bold into the middle of every Power-point slide and every public intervention, I bear some of the responsibility for it.

But the real story of Lisbon was the commitment beyond 2014 to underwriten what the Afghan Defence Minister, General Wardak, calls Afghanistan's  “journey to self-reliance”, through long-term training, technical assistance and funding for both civil governance and security forces. Once mature, the Afghan security forces' recurrent costs will be US$6-8bn a year. The Afghans won't be able to fund that themselves until the mid-2020s even as their mineral resources come on stream. And Afghanistan will still be among the world's poorest countries, so the international community will have to stay invested for a decade or more.

Reconciliation & Regional Stability

That long-term commitment by the international community to underwrite an Afghanistan able to secure and govern itself is the strategic political fact which some within Afghanistan and across the region have yet to appreciate. One of the Taliban's best soundbites is “While you have the watches, we have the time”. If they still believe it, they are in for an unpleasant surprise, but they certainly used to have a point. With the international coalition endlessly and publicly debating transition - “not an exit strategy” - and reconciliation - “not an exit strategy” - not only the Taliban, but most Afghans and all their neighbours believed that we would lose patience and leave an unstable Afghanistan, the consequences of which they would have to handle according to their national, ethnic or factional interests. Unsurprisingly, they re-insured against that  ontingency and in doing so made it all the more likely. The Great Game was back on.   However, the transition programme and the enduring partnerships founded on a solid platform of operational progress have established a new political landscape. Many Afghans and their neighbours are beginning to recognise this, although there are, inevitably, forces of reaction who haven't or won't. To overcome them, we must understand their perspectives on their strategic interests. For example: our strategic interest in Afghanistan is focused on the threat of al-Qaeda and their allies, for which we need to build an Afghanistan able to secure and govern itself. The Afghan strategic interest is the mirror image: an Afghanistan able to secure and govern itself, for which they need to tackle the threat of al-Qaeda and their allies. Our interests are aligned but they are not the same.

Similarly, Afghanistan's neighbours have their own view of their strategic interests. Pakistan's national security policy remains centred on India and they see Afghanistan through that prism. While they recognise the threat to them of a Talibanized Afghanistan, the Pak Army is naturally preoccupied with militancy threatening them now from the tribal areas along the Afghan border which they are fighting hard to bring under control for the first time. They are also having to re-examine the relationships between various militant groups – whether Pashtun, Punjabi or Kashmiri – which have burgeoned in the past two decades, fuelled by the spread of unregulated madrassas, which President Musharraf's government was struggling to rein in when I served in Pakistan several years ago. That movement has also infected the wider politics of Pakistan in which anti-Americanism is never far below the surface: of which events of recent weeks have been a salutary reminder. Some commentators in Pakistan even argue that the US presence in the region is aimed at their nuclear programme. No wonder we sometimes talk past each other.

Likewise in Iran, the military/security establishment fears encirclement by NATO or US forces to their north (Turkey), south (the Gulf), west (Iraq) and east (Afghanistan). We might dismiss these fears, but we must accept that, in a region plagued by insecurity and factional politics, they are sincere. And those fears lead some to the conclusion that an unstable Afghanistan is preferable to an unfriendly Afghanistan.

So one of the most urgent tasks for those of us engaged in implementing Secretary Clinton's diplomatic surge is to ensure that all the players understand the new landscape and recalibrate their own view of their strategic interests. This will require intense but calm and patient diplomacy. In that context, one of the most significant diplomatic initiatives of the past couple of years was the expansion of Richard Holbrooke's brainchild – the International Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan – to include several important Muslim nations (some of which are considering becoming ISAF contributors) and the addition of the Organization of the Islamic Conference – the OIC – to the international institutional framework with the appointment of their first ambassador to Afghanistan. The OIC's involvement both demonstrates that we are truly engaged in an international campaign against militancy which respects neither religion nor borders, and provides a Muslim political environment in which our Afghan partners are comfortable.

What does all that mean for what most people think of when we talk about a political strategy: reconciliation with the core Taliban? In my view, these four parameters – operational progress as the platform for sustainable transition, underwritten by enduring partnerships, accepted throughout the region and the Muslim world – are the framework for a sustainable Afghan reconciliation process rather than an ephemeral political deal. While the international community can help set the conditions, that process must be Afghan-to-Afghan. And on that, the news is positive.

While several political crises in 2010 made the headlines (although none as toxic as the frictions over the 2009 presidential election), to President Karzai's credit, the most important political development of the past year was the Peace Jirga and subsequent High Peace Council. The Jirga confounded those who feared a populist backlash against international forces or a chaotic nonevent.

Instead, the President and his team choreographed a national consensus which distinguished between irreconcilable militants and “disaffected compatriots” prepared to renounce violence and terrorism, and respect the constitution.

In a charged ethnic atmosphere, reconciling the Taliban could be seen by other ethnic groups as reuniting the Pashtuns at their expense. So locking in the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and civil society, all of whom fear that reconciliation could be inimical to their interests, was a substantial political achievement.

Under the leadership of Professor Rabbani, the Northern Alliance president of the mid-1990s, the High Peace Council and the Afghan Peace Programme are now beginning to reintegrate insurgents. So far, several hundred are through the process and a couple of thousand more are in the pipeline.

Arguably more important than insurgent reintegration, in a communal but fragmented political culture, will be the work of the provincial peace councils in grass-roots conflict resolution. While we all refer to “the” insurgency or “the Taliban” as cohesive political movements, the truth is that we face a kaleidoscope of local insurgencies, exploited and unified by an opportunistic Taliban leadership from the comfort of villas in Quetta or by criminal warlords. 90% of the insurgents fight within 10km of their homes. As the story of Marjeh illustrated, most are not hard-line ideologues but “disaffected compatriots” who drift into fighting with the Taliban because of local grievances – predatory governance, tribal or ethnic exclusion from political and economic power, frictions over land, water and so on – or to exercise criminal control over the drugs and extortion rackets. While we won't bring the insurgency to an end without tackling the source, we can take much of the fuel out of it through delivering sustainable security and decent rule of law on the ground, and by resolving local conflicts and disputes. Provincial governors and provincial peace councils will be central to this and will need professional assistance, whether through the UN's Salaam Support Group or some other mechanism.

As for the Taliban leadership, despite much speculation, they still show little interest in a genuine reconciliation process. Within their own world view, they act rationally. To appeal to their core Pashtun constituencies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, they claim to be “the people's mujaheddin” fighting a foreign occupation and they disavow the indiscriminate violence they inflict on their own people. But it is clear that their motive is power: the power to turn the clock back to the medieval barbarity of the 1990s regime, a regime they impose wherever they have the opportunity. We talk of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as separate movements. To be sure, there are distinctions, but their core objective is both ideological and nationalist: a Talibanized Pashtunistan bracketing the Durand Line as the first step to an Islamic Emirate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Extraordinary though that sounds, it is, as I said, about power. And that means there should be scope for dialogue. It is also why that dialogue must be Afghan-led.

As the recent Brahimi-Pickering Report for the Next Century Foundation pointed out, it has not been clear hitherto with whom the Afghans should negotiate or about what. The headline recommendation – appointing an international reconciliation facilitator – somewhat overshadowed the most promising ideas in the Report about how an inclusive political settlement – rebalancing power and resources between the executive and legislature, the centre and provinces, within Afghanistan's unitary state – could meet the strategic interests and mitigate the strategic risks for all the key players, internal and regional.

In my view, this is a powerful concept and whether it is pursued by a single facilitator or several, worth exploring. Indeed, as we have learnt in other conflicts, the process can be part of the solution. Whether that includes direct talks with the Taliban leadership, events will determine. But, if the Foundation's idea gains momentum, the Taliban leaders might find that everyone on whom they depend in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has found an alternative means of securing their interests.

Time for Diplomacy

Those who have been arguing for years for a political surge and a reconciliation process will doubtless wonder whether the rest of us are slow learners. Well, as Talleyrand famously observed, diplomacy is about timing. In my judgement, the time is now right to take the risk and pursue the political agenda with the same energy we have brought to the military and civilian surges. A year ago, I was trying to cool some of the more excitable talk about reconciliation and transition because, after several years in which the insurgents not we had the wind behind them, we risked signalling a scramble for the exit and thus reducing the prospects for a stable political settlement.

That is why I spent 2010 working quietly with others to put in place the political and diplomatic framework to exploit the operational progress I was confident the surge would deliver under the outstanding leadership of Gen McChrystal and then Gen Petraeus.

Progress is still fragile and reversible, but we have regained the initiative against the insurgency, and restored confidence and cohesion to the international coalition. This year, as transition begins, we must  consolidate those gains – hard-won by the courage of international and Afghan forces – we must manage the risks and inevitable setbacks, and we must improve the resilience of governance against the internal threat of warlordism and the external challenge from the insurgency to consolidate the confidence of the Afghan people in the Afghan state.

Progress, transition, partnership and regional stability should set the platform for a sustainable Afghan reconciliation process and a durable internal political settlement. That settlement will be complex, reflecting the fragmented politics of Afghanistan, and much of it will be local. Whether it leads to a “peace deal”with the Taliban leadership depends on them. Our task is to ensure that Afghanistan can secure and govern itself irrespective of what they decide, and that means helping the Afghans work towards an inclusive political settlement of the kind described in the Brahimi-Pickering Report.

This will require political and diplomatic action at every level from the Afghan village to the UN Security Council, because a stable reconciliation settlement within Afghanistan depends on a stable regional settlement with Afghanistan, and vice versa. That is the diplomatic agenda for 2011 and we must use every opportunity – April's NATO/ISAF Foreign Ministerial, June's Defence Ministerial, Kabul II, the International Contact Group, the Istanbul regional summit in the autumn, Bonn II in December and the NATO/ISAF Summit here in the US next spring – as stepping stones to move the process forward.

There will setbacks. Political processes are frustrating. There are forces of reaction who are itching to fire the starting gun on Great Game 3.0, and the insurgents will try to exploit this. Everyone will have to swallow difficult compromises. We will have to accept insurgent warlords with the blood of our troops on their hands within Afghan political life. So will Afghanistan's other ethnic communities who suffered so many atrocities under Taliban rule. Those in power will have to share it. The Taliban will have to accept that their dream of turning the clock back to their repressive Islamic Emirate is over, and reenter normal Afghan life with all the drudgery of the second-poorest country in the world. Afghanistan's neighbours must accept that the Great Game is over: Afghanistan is no longer the turf on which their regional rivalries can be played out. And the international community must accept the burden of underwriting the Afghan political settlement if we are to avoid another spiral back into disaffection, factionalism, civil war and state failure. So Mrs Clinton's challenge is undoubtedly challenging. But it is a challenge I believe we can meet.


Two years ago when I arrived in Afghanistan, security, governance, regional relations and coalition cohesion were in poor shape. In 2010, we regained the initiative against the insurgency and restored confidence to the international coalition. That will continue this year as the military campaign gathers pace and transition begins. But to achieve our strategic goals, we must turn that fragile but substantial operational progress into sustained political progress.

That will prove as complex as the military and civilian campaigns. As you all know, turning points are rarely apparent at the time, however inevitable they seem to the historians. So I don't know whether we are at or even past the turning point in Afghanistan, but I am sure that the progress we have made in the past year provides the opportunity to see this effort through to a successful conclusion. I could not have said that when I arrived in Afghanistan. While there will still be a long hard road ahead, if we remain resolute, that road will lead to the stable Afghanistan and safer world for which we have all sacrificed so much.

A speech to this Society on Afghanistan would be incomplete without remembering one of your most prominent associates and a friend and mentor of mine, the late and much lamented Richard Holbrooke. When Newsweek was working on a profile of Richard shortly after his death, they asked me to contribute and I gave a long background interview explaining the ups and downs of our engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Richard's part in it. At the end, the interviewer invited me to go on the record, noting that he was expecting another routine encomium to Richard's many great qualities. Instead, I just said that: “Richard's diplomacy wasn't about being diplomatic. It was about delivery”. So let me conclude with that thought. To bring what General Petraeus calls “the longest campaign in the long war” to a successful conclusion, now is the time for the diplomats to deliver too.

Thank you.