NATO Senior Civillian Representative Discusses Approach in Afghanistan

BELGIUM–(ENEWSPF)–14 May 2010.

2010: Afghan Sovereignty and International Partnerships

Speech by Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan

It is a privilege to have been invited to speak at Chatham House before such an expert audience, and somewhat intimidating to speak without the protection of Chatham House Rules. I was browsing your web-site and was struck as ever by the eclectic range of issues in which this institution takes an interest: coalition government in the UK, the prospects of President Goodluck Jonathan, the Greek debt crisis, African justice and Russian policy on Iran.

In my job, it would be easy to forget how many other challenges western governments face, but Afghanistan remains among the most vital. This is an important week as President Karzai visits Washington and we look ahead to a crowded agenda this summer. The title of this talk is: “Stable Afghanistan, Safer World”. You all know why stabilizing Afghanistan matters so I will focus on the how – a comprehensive strategy which integrates political, military and civil efforts, in that order, and what success in the Afghan context will look like.


But first the news. The situation we inherited was serious and deteriorating: security was worsening, governance had flat-lined and only development was clearly improving.

First, security:

  • the insurgency had deepened in the south and east and widened into the north and west;
  • casualties were rising – British deaths went from 30 to 50 to 70 to 100;
  • likewise civilian casualties;
  • and the insurgents believed that, while we had the watches they had the time.

Governance had flat-lined. Improvements in the economic and security ministries and some provinces were offset by endemic corruption, abuse of power by tribal warlords, and parallel governance by the international community, with 80% of our resources spent out with Afghan government systems and procurement practices which empower the empowered thus worsening the exclusion of the excluded. Last year’s presidential election, in which neither the Afghans nor the international community distinguished ourselves, left a legacy of mistrust, which President Karzai’s visit to Washington should finally put to rest.

The bright spot was economic and social development with strong growth, rising government revenues and dramatic improvements in access to education and healthcare. But, to the Afghan villager what matters is security and the standard is elementary:

  • can he get his goods to market without being robbed;
  • can his wife go to the shops and is there anything to buy;
  • can his kids go to school and is the school open;
  • can he get a dispute with his neighbour resolved without paying a bribe;
  • does he see a policeman as reassuring, threatening or useless?

At the grass-roots, Afghan governance is retail. When I was in Marjeh recently, I met a young woman doctor who had been there throughout the Taliban years: people came to her – the state – for healthcare and to the Taliban motor-cycle court to resolve disputes. That doesn’t mean people like the Taliban, but they prefer them to state institutions which have been corrupted or captured.


This illustrates a critical point: the military effort can deliver security and the civil effort can build schools and clinics, but unless we address the political issues – governance and exclusion – we anaesthetize the symptoms not tackle the disease.

President Obama’s decisions last year to double US forces to 100,000, with allies bringing the total to 140,000, demonstrated international commitment and gave General McChrystal the resources he needs. He has made a dramatic difference already. He didn’t set forth a new counterinsurgency doctrine but energised the old one, focusing on protecting and respecting the population, including by avoiding civilian casualties, growing and partnering the Afghan forces, and integrating military and civil effect.

The coherence Stan McChrystal has brought to the military effort is absent elsewhere. Tackling that is my job. And while, inevitably, I cannot command the international civilian and political efforts, I am seeking to bring to the ISAF coalition the purpose and energy Stan has brought to the ISAF force.

Together, we are building on his plan the comprehensive polmil- civ strategy we need.

We can boil down that comprehensive approach to three Rs:

  • regain the initiative against the insurgency;
  • resolve the political tensions which fuel it;
  • transition responsibility to the Afghans.

Regaining the Initiative

Regaining the initiative is at the heart of the McChrystal plan, which this year focuses on the south and east with operations led by British General Nick Carter in central Helmand and Kandahar. Although radically different if seen through a traditional military lens, both are exemplars of the new approach. This audience knows COIN doctrine, so let me just highlight three dimensions of partnership which sound familiar but are qualitatively different to previous operations: civ-mil, Afghan-international and provincial national.

First, civ-mil. Unlike previous operations, Marjeh was planned from the back to the front, with the governance and development effects designed into the plans for the initial military phase. The same will be true of Kandahar, although the military phase will look radically different. The Marjeh operation had a climatic D-Day because we had to re-take what was in effect enemy territory, whereas Kandahar will be a series of forensic operations across the city and the surrounding districts over several weeks designed to achieve a rising tide of security in support of the civil power – a properly-trained, properly-equipped, properly-led police force.

Second, Afghan-international partnership. In the McChrystal version of partnership, ISAF troops train, work, live and fight alongside their Afghan brethren to a common objective. They gain from our professionalism and capabilities. We gain from their knowledge of the terrain – physical and human. When the US Marines last conducted a joint operation in Marjeh, the ISAF/ANSF ratio was 10:1. For Moshtarek, the ratio was 2:1 and that is shifting further in the hold phase. Further up the chain of command, the Afghans were involved throughout in the conception and planning, and President Karzai gave the “go” order as commander-in-chief. In Kandahar too, we will proceed with his authority and on terms he has set. More on that in a moment.

Third, is the partnership between the national and provincial. In the underresourced ISAF Stan McChrystal inherited, operations were run bottom-up, with ISAF HQ coordinating rather than commanding. This time, we with Afghan ministers visited Helmand several times in advance of Moshtarek and worked hand-in-glove with Governor Mangal, including in managing the local politics and securing the consent of the people for the operation to proceed. The same is true now with Governor Weesa of Kandahar. As Napoleon noted, every battle turns on a single moment. Kandahar might not be that moment, but it is critical. It was the heartland of the Taliban regime and they realize that, once they have lost the initiative there, they will struggle to regain it. The Kandahar effort really will be political, military and civil – in that order: first shape the politics, then improve security, then deliver development projects the people want: we plan to shura our way to success, which is partly why it will be some time until progress is clear.

Resolving Political Tensions

Authentic Afghan methods like shuras and jirgas are also how we try to resolve the political tensions which fuel the insurgency. There is no link between the absence of development and the presence of conflict: there are many areas of Afghanistan which are poor but peaceful. The Taliban arose in the mid-90s as a reaction to the abuse of power. A decade later, the people of Marjeh turned to them for the same reason: the capture by local warlords of state institutions, especially the police who had become a predatory tribal militia. When I attended a shura there recently, I realised that, had I been born in Marjeh, I might have preferred the Taliban too. And, in an electrifying moment, a tribal elder attacked the local warlords in front of President Karzai and warned that the people would fight if they regained power.

What was black-and-white in Marjeh is shades of grey elsewhere. In rural Afghanistan, politics really is local. Three-quarters of the insurgents fight within a few miles of where they were born and they fight with – not for – the Taliban for local reasons: tribal grievances, ethnic tensions, disenfranchisement, abuse of power.

President Karzai told me about one tribal leader who had become an insurgent. Since they knew each other from when Karzai was touring the south in 2001 stirring up resistance against the Taliban, he invited the man to see him in Kabul and asked why he had gone over to the insurgency. Because the local security forces, under the control of a rival tribe, had raided his house. He tolerated it once but the second time he decided to fight. We label him a Talib. But is he really?

In Helmand and Kandahar in the south, across the east, in Kunduz in the north, local tribal tensions, which probably would break out into violence but contained violence, are exploited by the Taliban and run out of control. We must hose down the fire, but we must also tackle the cause. If their grievances can be addressed, men such as the one President Karzai described won’t sign on the dotted line but will quietly reintegrate themselves as they conclude that their future lies with the legitimate state rather than the Taliban.

That means not just fighting alongside the Afghan government, but reforming and strengthening it, so that it is resilient enough to withstand the external challenge of the Taliban and the internal challenge of capture by tribal or criminal groups. We can’t reconstruct Afghanistan’s power structure from scratch, so we have to co-opt the power-brokers by making clear that their only future lies in becoming part of the solution, using their power to support the counter-insurgency campaign rather than their own narrow interests, and get behind the efforts of the good provincial and district governors to build the representative political structures which defuse tensions and grievances.

The Peace Jirga and the parliamentary elections, as long as both are credible and inclusive, are important opportunities to start building a new domestic political settlement – the first step to the revision of Bonn for which many have called. To be stable, that political settlement must include reconciliation. Many people in Afghanistan fear that reconciliation of the core Taliban could reverse the gains of the past eight years, so President Karzai needs the consent of women’s groups, those who care about children’s rights, ethnic minorities who suffered under the Taliban and, to be frank, the power-brokers who benefit from the status quo.

Reconciliation comes with two conditions, both non-negotiable for the Afghans themselves: renounce violence and terrorism and respect the Afghan constitution, including the rights of women, children and minorities. The Peace Jirga is a critical opportunity for President Karzai to build consensus and initiate the reconciliation and reintegration programmes. He needs our help and will, I believe, secure President Obama’s support this week.

Reconciliation will be controversial, particularly for the families of soldiers – allied and Afghan – who have died fighting people who might re-enter Afghan political and economic life. But worse would be to face the family of a foreign soldier or Afghan civilian killed because we had missed the opportunity to bring this conflict to an end. That opportunity has not existed before. It exists now as we regain the initiative.

The regional context is critical. Afghanistan is not an island and although the Great Game is over, Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours retain close links with Afghanistan’s ethnic communities and have strategic interests in the parameters of the Afghan political settlement. As the new Afghan foreign minister, Dr Zalmay Rassoul, puts it, Afghanistan needs a concept of peace. Although I suspect that a stable regional framework will prove elusive in such a tough neighbourhood, there are various processes – more or less promising – to identify common interests which could build confidence. As this audience knows, the key is Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan face a common challenge and must take a common approach. However well reintegration of local fighters proceeds, the core Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hekmatyr will recruit more from the younger refugee generation radicalized in Pakistani madrassas.

I know that there are many theories, some conspiratorial, about Pakistan’s motives. They are criticised when they don’t arrest senior Talibs and criticised when they do. I was in Pakistan last week and detected a significant change of attitude among both the military and political leaderships from that I recall from when I served there a few years ago. They all argued that Pakistan’s strategic interest lies in a stable Afghanistan and that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are blood brothers so it isn’t possible to treat one as an asset and the other as a liability. “Stable Afghanistan, Safer World”? As I told the media in Pakistan last week: “Stable Afghanistan, Safer Pakistan”.

Bringing the two countries together will not be straightforward, but I believe that the opportunity exists to improve radically the prospects for an enduring Afghan political settlement. Both countries will need our support to face the compromises both will have to make. Both have suffered from surges and withdrawals of western affection so international commitments must be genuinely strategic: trade access to the EU and US, support for their armed forces, intelligence cooperation, and political efforts, preferably under the radar, to help them tackle the bilateral issues which have plagued them for so long.

Transition to Afghan Responsibility

The third “R” is transition to Afghan responsibility. This “R” has not attracted the attention of the other two, but it will. Nine years in, the peoples of the Alliance are impatient and it is a tribute to the political leadership here in the UK and elsewhere that they have maintained their resolve despite public opinion in most countries turning hostile. For the Afghans, we are in year 31 of the conflict and in a country with a life expectancy of 44, that is forever. So we need a perspective for success.

By the end of 2010, the fundamentals won’t look much different. We will have been through another tough year as we take the fight to the insurgency, I’m afraid that there will have been all too many casualties, violence will still be high and we won’t have seen dramatic improvements in governance or development, both of which take time. But I am confident that we will – and will be able to demonstrate that we – have regained the initiative. The Afghan security forces will be bigger and better. In Helmand and Kandahar, security and the people’s confidence in their government will be rising. I expect the Peace Jirga, the Kabul Conference and hopefully the parliamentary elections to have injected political momentum and the foundations of an inclusive political settlement. Reintegration and reconciliation should be getting traction. And I expect Afghanistan and Pakistan to be working to tackle their common challenges.

Perhaps the most important way we can demonstrate that we are on track is to start the transition to Afghan responsibility – comprehensive responsibility for their own security, governance and development. They are a proud people and this is what they want. At his inauguration last November, President Karzai set a deadline for the exercise of full sovereignty throughout the territory of Afghanistan and across all the functions of government by the end of his second term in 2014. President Obama set July 2011 as the deadline to start. This is a challenging timetable.

Transition is a process not an event. It must be irreversible so it will involve a phased shift to a leading role for the Afghans and a supporting role for the international effort. It does not mean withdrawing international forces or development, although the balance will shift from the vertical – frontline operations and direct delivery of aid projects – to the horizontal – the NATO Training Mission training and equipping their Afghan brethren, and development aid focused on building Afghan government capability.

For security transition, the Iraq model, although not an exact parallel, has many useful lessons and the process is well articulated in the NATO/ISAF operational plan. While the operational main effort is in Kandahar and Helmand, ISAF’s strategic main effort is the Afghan security forces. By mid 2011, they will be 300,000 strong.

On the civilian side, transition to Afghan responsibility will mean a shift in the stabilizing provinces from a militarized stabilization model to a mainstream civilian development model focused on Afghan provincial government capability, partnering international development agencies and attracting private sector investment. PRTs will evolve as should how and where we deliver aid.

International development aid is skewed towards the unstable areas of the country and 80% is still delivered out with government systems. President Karzai sometimes reminds us that we are the primary parallel government in Afghanistan. At the London Conference, we committed to increasing the proportion delivered through the government to 50% within the next couple of years. This will be challenging, but the target will focus our efforts on building their capabilities rather than on quick impact – and let’s be honest, mostly small impact – projects.

Preparing the Afghans to take responsibility will also force us and them to focus on the drivers of sustainability. I am exploring with Finance Minister Zakhiwal establishing a new provincial development support mechanism to channel more international funds for provinces through the government, increasing the discretionary funds available to governors, and rebalancing aid between the over-aided unstable and the under-aided stabilizing provinces.

This approach – civilianizing, internationalizing and Afghanizing our provincial efforts – should strengthen Afghan government at all levels and bring others onto the field, enabling us to reassure our publics that we are not stuck on the treadmill interminably. It will also demonstrate to the Afghans that we really mean the headline: “Afghan sovereignty, international partnership”. We will agree the policy programme at the Kabul Conference and I expect that, at the NATO summit in Lisbon in November, we will announce the first tranche of provinces beginning the transition to full Afghan responsibility.

This is not a rush to the exit. On the contrary, by setting out a route-map to a sustainable destination, we reduce the temptation to dive for the emergency exit either by withdrawing forces or a quick political fix. Afghanistan needs a sustainable political settlement and sustained commitment from the international community. Paradoxically, our best chance of bringing our involvement to a timely conclusion is to invest now, invest wisely, invest in the Afghans themselves and invest for the long term.


If we succeed in regaining the initiative, resolving political tensions and transitioning responsibility, what will Afghanistan look like by 2014 when President Karzai’s second term concludes and history begins the judgement of the legacy he hands his successor? Afghanistan will still be poor and rough, especially to the western eye. Illiteracy will still be rife, worse among women and worse still in the rural areas. Respect for human rights, especially women’s and children’s, will still be patchy. Corruption will still be entrenched – getting Afghanistan up the Transparency Index to the levels of much of Africa will be a dramatic success. To Western eyes, the levels of violence, mostly tribal, land and water disputes, might seem eye-watering, punctuated by eye-catching terrorist attacks from whatever remains of the insurgency.

I know that doesn’t sound as inspiring as some of the early nation-building rhetoric, but think how much we will have achieved. Afghanistan will be stable enough that the integrity of the nation is assured. Afghanistan’s territory will not be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other groups to attack us or disrupt Pakistan. Afghanistan’s kaleidoscope of ethnic groups will be working together through authentically Afghan and thus to the western eye confusing parliamentary, shura and jirga mechanisms to share political power and the economic benefits of Afghanistan’s huge mineral resources. President Karzai will be the first democratic Afghan leader to hand power to a democratic successor, and one of very few to hand over his country in a dramatically better condition than he inherited.

For him and the Afghans,

that is a legacy worth the struggle and sacrifice. For us too.

Thank you.