Plain speaking on Afghanistan

IssueNovember 2008
News by Gabriel Carlyle

While the war in Afghanistan continues to escalate, a British diplomat and a British military commander have made headlines with their outspoken realism about the conflict.

The leaked draft US National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan describes the country as in a “downward spiral”.

A French diplomat’s secret report of his meeting with British ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has been leaked, causing embarrassment.

Cowper-Coles is alleged to have said: “the presence, notably military, of the coalition is a part of the problem, not the solution”; and: “Foreign forces are assuring the survival of a regime, which, without them, would quickly crumble. In doing so, they are slowing down and complicating an eventual end to the crisis (incidentally, probably a dramatic one).”

In his most candid remark, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia (who recommended the dropping of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into BAE) suggested that the best scenario was that “in five to ten years”, when British troops were no longer present on Afghan soil, the country would be “governed by an acceptable dictator”.

Cowper-Coles also warned: “the American presidential candidates must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan. [Their] strategy is bound to fail.”

Let’s talk

In another pessimistic outburst, this time public, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who recently completed a six-month mission in southern Afghanistan, told the Sunday Times: “We’re not going to win this war.”

He added: “It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

Carleton-Smith added: “If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

Deaths surge

A new report by professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire has found that the reported number of Afghan civilians killed directly by US/NATO forces since 1 January 2006 now exceeds the number reported killed by the original US invasion.

On 16 October, a NATO airstrike on a village in Helmand province killed between 25 and 30 civilians. BBC reporters saw 18 bodies, all women and children, ranging in age from 6 months to 15 years. In early October, NATO defence ministers decided that, for the first time, their forces would start to target drug lords and opium laboratories in Afghanistan.

While Whitehall sources say that 8,000 troops are “the absolute ceiling” for the British presence, the new head of the British army has called for a “surge” of 30,000 troops, including 5,000 more British troops. US commanders support the idea.

Topics: Afghanistan