David Blackburn

Retreating from Kabul

Retreating from Kabul
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Britain’s former envoy to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, has written an op-ed about NATO’s coming withdrawal from Afghanistan in this morning’s Times (£). The unspoken analysis is that: having failed to defeat the Taliban unconditionally in battle, it will be hard to secure peace and stability.

Like Matt Cavanagh, who wrote an extensive report on the situation in Afghanistan for Coffee House last week, Cowper-Coles says that NATO is split between ‘shooters’, who perpetually ask for one more ‘big push’, and politicians, who are seeking negotiated settlement and military drawdown. Cowper-Coles gives a diplomatic angle, arguing that NATO must first prove it is serious about peace if the Taliban are to join a meaningful accord that can withstand NATO’s exit. He suggests:

‘The first priority must be to wind down the level of violence. We need to return to the policy followed by General Stanley McChrystal, until his premature departure a year ago, of protecting the population. The vast increase in air and special forces strikes in the past year has dealt the Taleban a heavy blow. But it has removed many of the older commanders most interested in peace, those most essential for a stable settlement. Killing more insurgents may be good tactics, and even better politics. But, with only three years before we stop fighting, it is poor strategy and an odd way to win the hearts and minds of those who must be part of any sustainable settlement.

This year Ramadan coincides with August. An imaginative Western policy would use the Muslim holy month, or one of the great Muslim feasts that follow it, to declare an end to all offensive operations in Afghanistan. Isaf would attack only if attacked. Such a move would show that the West was serious about making peace. It could launch the kind of deep national reconciliation that is essential if Afghanistan is not to plunge back into a new dark age of civil war once Nato leaves.’

The military favour a strong campaign this summer. As Matt Cavanagh has noted, no commanders believe they can beat the Taliban outright, but General Petraeus has intensified operations in order to bring the Taliban to the table, in the hope that NATO can dictate terms to an extent. It seems that the politicians still back firm military action, for the moment. David Cameron has supposedly authorised the redeployment of 450 servicemen from Helmand, but Whitehall sources insist that these soldiers served in support roles at Camp Bastion. Therefore, the British contingent will lose none of its striking capability. Eventually, though, diplomatic solutions will supersede military power as the date for withdrawal approaches. Perhaps next summer...