Diplomats are often seen as stuffy characters from a different century, men who often
appear lost in today’s chaotic world. Nobody could be further from that caricature than Mark Sedwill, the former British ambassador in Kabul and outgoing NATO Senior Civilian Representative
to Afghanistan. For more than a year, Sedwill has been, first, General Stanley McChrystal’s right-hand and, more recently, the civilian counterpart to General David Petraeus. Since he took up
his ambassadorial post in Kabul, after a stint as Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan, few Britons have had as much influence on NATO’s strategy as him. And there are now rumours that,
having impressed several Tory ministers, Sedwill could be in line to replace Peter Rickett as the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser. In the week when his replacement was announced,
the Ealing-born diplomat kindly agreed to answer a few questions about NATO’s Afghan mission.
Daniel Korski: It seems that after ten years, NATO finally has all the military elements in place to beat back the various insurgencies – with practically half the US Marine
Corps in Helmand. But is there sufficient progress on the political track to ensure a successful outcome? Relations with Hamid Karzai seem as poor as ever and the US seems reluctant to make a big
push on negotiations with various insurgents.
Mark Sedwill: In 2010 we regained the initiative against the insurgency, notably through clearing the Taliban from their heartlands in Helmand and Kandahar, including Mullah
Omar’s birthplace. Progress, while significant, is not yet irreversible and, as you suggest in your question, we need to capitalise on the platform the military effort has secured through
political outreach and development programmes to reintegrate those insurgents who are tiring of the fight, and provide the sustainable security and rule of law the people need. The US is
leading the effort to reintegrate insurgents, having made available US$50m for these programmes. Building government capacity, especially a professional police force, remains
challenging. While we have our ups and downs with President Karzai and his government, and our perspectives are often different, our strategic interests are aligned and we are working
together to tackle the internal threat of corruption and the external threat of the insurgency, to transfer responsibility for security and governance to the Afghans and to establish the long-term
partnerships which will underwrite the stable Afghanistan and thus safer world for which we have sacrificed so much.
DK: Since at least 2008, there has been talk of talks between the international community, the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Now, however, it seems that the US military wants
to delay serious political negotiations until the insurgency is beaten down. But is the best time to negotiate not when you have deployed all that you have and cannot throw more into the fight, but
rather when you are building up to your maximum deployment – that is, now?
MS: In all insurgencies there is a period – often prolonged – when fighting and talking run in parallel. For the first time, we now have a serious effort to
reintegrate those insurgents who are tiring of the fight and several hundred have already taken up the offer. Be under no illusions: without the intense military pressure they are facing, the
Taliban would have no interest in responding to the Afghan Government’s offer of reconciliation. Instead, they would hope to wait us out, regain power and turn the clock back to the
medieval brutality of 1990s Afghanistan. The whole Alliance, including the US, backs President Karzai’s offer of reconciliation talks. So far, the Taliban’s core leadership
have shown little interest. But the offer is there, it’s genuine and we support it. Until they take it up and real progress is evident, the pressure will continue; indeed it will
intensify. Their move.
DK: Some people have argued that the Pakistani military is more realistic about how great a say they can have in a post-NATO Afghanistan and that their support for the Taliban is a
becoming a bigger problem than they thought it would. Is that your reading as well and what can the international community do to lessen regional tensions?
MS: In my contacts, indeed most exchanges, with the Pakistani leadership – military and civilian – they have set out clearly that a stable Afghanistan is in
Pakistan’s interests. As you suggest, they didn’t always see it that way. Traditionally, Pakistan has focused on the external threat they perceive from India. Now, I
think they understand that the internal threat of violent militancy, particularly in forbidding economic circumstances, is immediate, serious and fuelled by instability in Afghanistan. Of
course, I would hope to see more action against the Afghan groups which operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, but I also recognise how stretched the Pakistani forces are in a tough fight with their
own militant groups, some of them Taliban and thus the blood brothers of the Afghan Taliban, notably in the border areas. In my view the international community can help to promote dialogue
and their common interests (such as the Af-Pak Transit Trade Agreement which should boost economic integration), and underwrite sustainable stability in both countries through long-term and
credible commitments to give them the confidence to set aside their historic suspicions and work together against their common threats.
DK: David Cameron and other NATO leaders have now laid down a withdrawal date for their forces. What effects does this have on the ground – does it make the enemy hunker down
and wait for our departure, does it make President Karzai less willing to engage with us, or does it act like a goad that speeds up the state-building process?
MS: I recall people asking similar questions about President Obama’s decision to start reducing US forces in July 2011. I replied that, if the Taliban thought that they
could just hunker down and wait for July, they were in for a mighty unpleasant surprise in August. The same is true of 2014 and 2015. David Cameron has said that British troops will be
out of combat roles by 2015. That is completely in line with the NATO strategy to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghans by the end of 2014, or, in plain English, for the bigger
and better Afghan army and police we will have built by then to be fighting whatever is left of the insurgency. That does not mean NATO will be gone.
On the contrary, the transition through to 2014 is matched by our commitment to a long-term partnership beyond 2014 to continue to support and develop the Afghan security forces, and, of course,
the economic and social development of Afghanistan. That’s a common strategy with President Karzai. He wants Afghans to exercise full sovereignty across all the functions of
government and throughout the territory of Afghanistan. So do we. And, in the next few weeks, we will set out joint plans to complete that transition by the 2014 deadline.
DK: In a forthcoming report, OXFAM is going to say that schools built by NATO forces’ reconstruction teams – intended to promote the authority of the Afghan government
and win ‘hearts and minds’ for the acceptance of NATO forces themselves – are perceived by Afghans to be at higher risk of attack by anti-government forces. If much of NATO’s strategy
relies not only on military activities, but also a civilian reconstruction effort and much of this effort is coming unstuck then how can the alliance succeed?
MS: As you suggest, the counter-insurgency strategy is indeed comprehensive and relies on governance and development as well as security. For several reasons, not just
security, it is true that schools and clinics and other facilities built by communities rather than international agencies, whether military or civil, are more sustainable. That’s why
one of the most important programmes in Afghanistan is the National Solidarity Programme, which provides block grants to rural communities for grass-roots development projects they choose, design
And, of course, as anyone would, they defend projects in which they have invested their own effort more effectively than facilities which have come as a gift. This is at the heart of the
transition process for governance and development, which will operate alongside the transition of security responsibility to the Afghan forces. Instead of delivering projects ourselves in the
absence of Afghan government capability, we will shift to building that capability so that the Afghan state can take responsibility for delivery. As T E Lawrence said almost a century ago,
“Better they do it imperfectly than you do it perfectly. For it is their country, their way and our time is short.”
DK: What will Afghanistan look like in 2020?
MS: As Sam Goldwyn said: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” With the pace of events here, 2020 is some way off. No doubt there will
still be some terrorist and other militant groups hiding out in the remote mountainous areas. But, Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and whatever remains of the insurgency
should no longer pose a mortal threat to the Afghan state. The lives of most Afghans will still be dominated by poverty rather than insecurity, illiteracy will still be high, and children
will still be at risk from respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases which are responsible for the highest infant mortality rate in the world. But economic growth should be lifting more Afghans out
of subsistence poverty.
Wisely exploited, Afghanistan’s staggering mineral resources should be starting to generate prosperity and employment. The first generation of children educated since 2001 will be young
adults insisting on education for their own children. Girls’ education, as it does everywhere else, will underpin reduced birth rates, reduced maternal and infant mortality, and steady
social progress. Afghan politics will still look pretty rough to the western eye, but Afghanistan’s kaleidoscope of ethnic groups will be working together through authentically Afghan
parliamentary, shura and jirga mechanisms, to share political and economic power. Most important, while Afghanistan will still face the huge challenges of poverty, the country should be
stable and thus the world safer – as long we maintain our resolve.