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Troubling assessment from a departing diplomat…

April 28, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: New York Times report on some very frank and pessimistic thoughts from a departing French diplomat

Photos of Afghan maps 006I thought, rather than merely tweeting this forward, it deserves a proper read.  Easy to speak out (and not much help, more to the point) when you have moved on.  It reminds me of the former British Ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, who would have us believe that he resigned in frustration.  His book emerged shortly afterwards, heavy with criticism of the (mainly US) strategy.  The views here appear to be echoed by many others.  The  “perfect storm” metaphor is also both striking and worrying.  How, after all this effort, did we end up here…?   Wonder what Anders Fogh Rasmussen will have to say when he moves on…?

“New York Times, 27 Ar 2013: Departing French Envoy Has Frank Words on Afghanistan

By Alissa Rubin

KABUL, Afghanistan — It is always hard to gauge what diplomats really think unless one of their cables ends up on WikiLeaks, but every once in a while, the barriers fall and a bit of truth slips into public view.

That is especially true in Afghanistan, where diplomats painstakingly weigh every word against political goals back home.

The positive spin from the Americans has been running especially hard the last few weeks, as Congressional committees in Washington focus on spending bills and the Obama administration, trying to secure money for a few more years here, talks up the country’s progress. The same is going on at the European Union, where the tone has been sterner than in the past, but still glosses predictions of Afghanistan’s future with upbeat words like “promise” and “potential.”

Despite that, one of those rare truth-telling moments came at a farewell cocktail party last week hosted by the departing French ambassador to Kabul: Bernard Bajolet, who is leaving to head France’s Direction Génerale de la Sécurité Extérieure, its foreign intelligence service. After the white-coated staff passed the third round of hors d’oeuvres, Mr. Bajolet took the lectern and laid out a picture of how France — a country plagued by a slow economy, waning public support for the Afghan endeavor and demands from other foreign conflicts, including Syria and North Africa — looked at Afghanistan. While it is certainly easier for France to be a critic from the sidelines than countries whose troops are still fighting in Afghanistan, the country can claim to have done its part. It lost more troops than all but three other countries before withdrawing its last combat forces in the fall.

The room, filled with diplomats, some senior soldiers and a number of Afghan dignitaries, went deadly quiet. When Mr. Bajolet finished, there was restrained applause — and sober expressions. One diplomat raised his eyebrows and nodded slightly; another said, “No holding back there.” So what did he say? That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West’s investment in it, would come to little. His tone was neither shrill nor reproachful. It was matter-of-fact. “I still cannot understand how we, the international community, and the Afghan government have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 — elections, new president, economic transition, military transition and all this — whereas the negotiations for the peace process have not really started,” Mr. Bajolet said in his opening comments. He was echoing a point shared privately by other diplomats, that 2014 was likely to be “a perfect storm” of political and military upheaval coinciding with the formal close of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.

As for the success of the fight on the ground, which American leaders routinely describe now as being “Afghan-led,” Mr. Bajolet sounded dubious. “We do not have enough distance to make an objective assessment,” he said, “but in any case, I think it crucial that the Afghan highest leadership take more visible and obvious ownership for their army.” His tone — the sober, troubled observations of a diplomat closing a chapter — could hardly have been more different from that taken by the new shift of American officials charged with making it work in Afghanistan: in particular, with that of Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new American commanding general here. This week, General Dunford sent out a news release cheering on Afghanistan’s progress, noting some positive-leaning statistics and praising the Afghan Army’s abilities. “Very soon, the A.N.S.F. will be responsible for security nationwide” General Dunford said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces. “They are steadily gaining in confidence, competence, and commitment.”

At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan’s government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said. Several diplomats in the room could be seen nodding as he said that drugs caused “more casualties than terrorism” in Russia, Europe and the Balkans and that Western governments would be hard-put to make the case for continued spending on Afghanistan if it remains the world’s largest heroin supplier.

The biggest contrast with the American and British line was Mr. Bajolet’s riff on sovereignty, which has become the political watchword of the moment. The Americans and the international community are giving sovereignty back to Afghanistan. Afghanistan argues frequently that it is a sovereign nation. President Hamid Karzai, in the debate over taking charge of the Bagram prison, repeatedly said that Afghanistan had a sovereign responsibility to its prisoners. His implicit question was, what does that really mean? “We should be lucid: a country that depends almost entirely on the international community for the salaries of its soldiers and policemen, for most of its investments and partly on it for its current civil expenditure, cannot be really independent.”

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2013 11:21 pm

    Hi Tim,
    A comment, and a question here. Regarding the absence of any substantive negotiations, in some respect, I think this condition can be traced back to the late 1990’s. Any attempts to use diplomacy in such as way as to make the Taliban manageable, and accustomed to the compromises that diplomacy necessitates, were not given adequate attention. (And the obvious failure to recognize OBL’s importance to the Taliban war effort.) This same reluctance seems to be impairing the negotiations process now as well. As I see it, the US simply will not make a good will gesture (ie., GITMO), that might persuade the TB to at least consider talking about the issues at stake.
    As for the drug problem, now I know nothing about the politics of agriculture, but aren’t susidies used to encourage growth of certain crops? How seriously has this been applied to the poppy problem? I should know this already, but I confess, it’s a knowledge deficit, big time.

  2. April 29, 2013 9:51 am

    Hi Suzanne and thanks!

    I think the UN efforts spectacularly failed during the 1990s to broker anything of use. This might be why they are conspicuous by their absence today when, in my view, they are one of the few bodies who could (and should) be driving conflict resolution forward very proactively. To be fair, not all of this was their fault: perhaps for slightly different reasons, none of the Afghan protagonists then had any intention of real power-sharing. Now, neither side fully understand the scale of the problem, neither are really ready to back down from conflict (Karzai’s got his big, shiny army and the Taliban are still full of Spring Offensives) and neither yet seems to have anything resembling a plan or are seized with sufficient war-weariness to grasp what the country stands on the brink of. They are easily distracted and I suspect they don’t really understand “compromise” beyond the secret trading of ministerial positions.

    With the drug issue, I have never been quite sure whether it is a symptom or cause of the problem of instability. But it is certainly a real blind spot for the West and I think this distorts the issue – both in terms of how it is perceived, the resources put into it and the expectations for results. Perhaps if other issues were resolved first, the drug issue would fade? But many approaches have been tried – subsidies for other crops, forced eradication, paying people not to grow, paying people to eradicate, turning a blind eye in the hope it will go away or at least not exacerbate the security situation. But they have been tried all at once in a multitude of confused combinations – politicians, diplomats and theorists all plug their favoured option (from Bush wanting to crop-spray, to the Senlis Council wanted to pay farmers for the poppy and use it internationally for medicine) and some ideas get tried for a bit, then the advocate (or the money) moves on and it gets forgotten about for a year or two, before being reinvented by a new advocate.

    What can I say? The West, when it engages in something tricky, demands instant understanding, instant solutions and instant results (ie, within the four year electoral lifespan of a government).

    I heard Barnett Rubin at a conference in around 2008 say that if the infrastructure – transportation, storage, freight etc was rebuilt, people would naturally gravitate to lower risk crops, rather than subsidising people to artificially do stuff that they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do, given their circumstances. I have some sympathy with this view – even though new roads are easily blown up. But, in the end, I think the “solution”, if there is one, lies 20 years away, if the economy and infrastructure is able to pick up…

    But, of course, the security situation needs to improve for that to happen.
    Chicken and Egg, right?!

  3. April 29, 2013 5:18 pm

    Hi Tim,
    Well, my very long reply was lost! I’ll attempt to retrieve my scattered thoughts this evening.

  4. April 29, 2013 11:51 pm

    Okay Tim, Let me try this again! I appreciate your thoughtful and cogent reply to my comment, and I’ll just say a few things.
    I agree about the failure of the UN in the ’90s. It seems, on some level, that a central failure was missing to what extent the Taliban were *starved* for recognition and legitimacy. That desire might have been supplied, conditionally, and exploited as well. By that, I mean the West realizing that perhaps the Taliban could be persuaded to be more tractable, and open to compromise, rather than some irrational “fanatical” regime, because clearly, that served the interests of no one. As you mentioned, neither side had “any intention of real power sharing,” in response, I think “toughness” on the part of interlocutors may have had an effect in that situation (unlike the “women’s rights” issue, for example.) You are exactly right about neither side currently being fully aware of the stakes involved. Yes, there is a frustration over the fragmentary and unsettled actions that are swirling about. Negotiations, peace talks, the mysterious Doha “office,” which seemed to be enternally stuck in a state of “opening.”
    On the drug issue, as unbelievable as it may seem, I think that US failed to appreciate the relationship between conflict and illicit economies. (I know, I know, I can’t believe I’m typing that.) Yes, there are people who study this relationship extensively, and know the correlations and corrective actions, but my God, I don’t think the Bush admin. had much interest the opinions of those who might have known better. I’m linking an interesting piece here: http://www.silkroadstudies.org/docs/publications/2005/JPR.pdf It’s really basic, and doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but it’s not bad as an overview. Again, as it so often seems, security is the missing piece of the puzzle, along with a long-term vision, which I think in future examinations of this conflict, will be great regret.

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