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FeaturesSir Sherard Cowper-Coles - Challenges Remain

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles – Challenges Remain

As Britain’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was in a unique position to understand this country’s role in a war that has now gone on for more than ten years. He talked to Fergus Byrne about what could be done to end the conflict.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is predictably charming. His warm, relaxed greeting as he ushers me into his office at BAE Systems is that of a man totally at ease with visitors. Naturally adept at close communication and exuding a warmth and refinement that cannot be learned or purchased; he has brought his wisdom and intellect to bear on British International relations with countries as diverse as Northern Ireland, Israel, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia. Most recently he was British Ambassador to Afghanistan and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  He sports a Diplomatic corps smile that sits easily on a weather-beaten face. After more than 30 years as a diplomat, he has ‘retired’ from the service, both to write and to pursue other interests, including his new job at BAE Systems where he is International Business Development Director, focusing on the Middle East and South-East Asia.

Earlier this year he published a book centred around his years spent trying to bring some form of civil sense to what most people only know of as the military conflict in Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul is as detailed an account as he was allowed to give of his time spent meeting, greeting, advising, cajoling and debating with some of the many players in a complicated conflict that is ten years old this month. The book gives us, not only an insight into the inner workings of the life of a diplomat in Kabul but also a bird’s eye view of how politicians, the military and many of the major players in this conflict have blindly stumbled through the last ten years without a clear exit strategy. The BBC’s World Affairs editor John Simpson calls it; ‘The clearest, best informed, and most honest account yet of why and how Britain was drawn deeper and deeper into the Afghan war, by the man who knows more about it than just about anyone else.’

The driving theme running through the book is one of frustration. Frustration at having his hands tied by the Americans and frustration at having to peddle an official line when he could clearly see the need for more focused processes to bring about political and civil stability to the region. He points out the folly of Britain’s efforts to discuss and debate strategy in Afghanistan when in reality it was just a powerless small partner in the overall scheme of things. And although he dedicates the book to the memory of his opposite number, the late Richard Holbrooke, who was US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he makes it clear that his relationship with Holbrooke was one of playing catch up: constantly trying to interact with him but often being brushed aside like a pestering mosquito.

Another major source of frustration was the monotonously regular mantra peddled by most middle-rank military leaders; that they were ‘making progress, but challenges remain’. He points out that the choreography for visiting guests of honour was that they would ask a series of questions—supposedly penetrating but rarely cutting through to the real issues—and the answer would always be the same, ‘progress but challenges’: covering up the reality that the whole venture, costly in terms of both lives and money, was doomed without a clear political strategy.

The third source of frustration running through the book is another story entirely: that of his frustration with his superiors within the Diplomatic corp. Having taken their pound of flesh he was passed over for the top jobs that had been dangled like carrots in front of his nose throughout the latter part of his career. Although sometimes more outspoken than is healthy when working in a tight-knit organisation like the Diplomatic corps, he is quick to point out that he left the service, not because of any “row over policy in Afghanistan”, but because there were many other things he wished to do. If he bears any bitterness now he is keen to push it under the carpet.

Today he is no longer bound to a political line and firmly lays the blame for the situation in Afghanistan on our American ‘partners’. “I think the real problem, unfortunately, lies with Washington,” he says. “In particular in the State Department where Mrs Clinton hasn’t backed up a very good speech, she made last February when she called for a political surge to accompany and enfold the military surge and development surge. But there hasn’t really been a surge, there’s been a trickle.” He says the top-level administration has not been doing what is really essential to solve the problem. He maintains, as he did in Cables from Kabul, that America should be bringing all the regional powers on the borders of Afghanistan together in conference. Not just once, as is planned for next month in Istanbul, but “systematically and serially”. He believes that collectively, “as stakeholders in this project”, countries like Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia, as well as the smaller border states, should be working together for a solution, so that there is what he calls, “outside-in pressure on the individuals inside Afghanistan”. He compares it to a double-decker bus. “You need the regional powers on the top deck and on the lower deck all the internal parties because it’s not just a problem internal to Afghanistan.” He says he simply doesn’t understand why Mrs Clinton is not doing what Kissinger would have done; which is to try and broker a peace, get the parties round a table and hammer out an agreement.

Whilst Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and American General Stanley McChrystal have both recently pointed their fingers at the mistakes made by the allies over the last decade, many observers see the situation as impossible and some suggest that once Western forces pull out in 2014, the country will quickly descend into civil war. I put it to Sir Sherard that the recent murder of ex-president  Burhanuddin Rabbani by a Taliban suicide bomber must surely show that the Taliban are playing hardball and don’t really want peace. But he takes a more positive stance and believes that Rabbani was not the right man to lead a peace drive. “But irrespective of that,” he says, “these things should only increase one’s determination to work for peace.” Although he concedes that dealing with Afghanistan is akin to playing difficult, complicated, multi-dimensional chess, he still believes that there is a way to bring a lasting peace to the area. “Afghanistan’s not impossible,” he says. “But it requires courage, statesmanship and leadership”.

He believes that the Taliban have come to realise that they are never going to rule the country again and are therefore ready to talk and suggests that they are willing to reach a deal because they don’t want Afghanistan ever again to be used as a base for attacks on other countries. He points out that the real enemy is al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, reminding me that Richard Holbrooke used to say that ‘we are fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country’.

Cowper-Coles’ frustrations at the lack of political progress go somewhat deeper than that of a political observer. His vast experience of the region and his on the ground interaction with both the military and local Afghans has left him believing that, unless we make a more concerted effort to find a political solution, we are badly letting down both the military and the innocent Afghans. “I feel for the families and next of kin of our soldiers who have died,” he says. “I think we are dishonouring them if we don’t make a serious effort to stabilise the country before we leave.”

The current situation in Afghanistan is nothing if not fluid. Since I met with Sir Sherard, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has announced that there is no one within the Taliban to negotiate with and suggested discussions with Pakistan. He then promptly did a deal with India, incurring Pakistani wrath. The US, in the meantime, has had a spat with Iran over an alleged assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador and, as we go to press, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sceptics will see this as political posturing whilst others may be hopeful that it is a sign that Mrs Clinton will be making good on her promise to ramp up efforts toward a peace process. Either way, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles will have an interesting take on the situation as well as an experienced insight into what may happen next.

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