One last heave for an Afghan peace

It won’t be enough to say “All right, Hamid, you can take over” in 2014. We owe it to our troops to secure a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arriving in Afghanistan
A US Marine watches as an Osprey carrying US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arriving in Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images

In 1976, Private Eye marked Harold Wilson’s sudden decision to leave office, and hand over to Jim Callaghan, with one of its most memorable covers. Beneath the banner headline “End of Era” was placed a picture of a sinking battleship. Out of the bridge came a balloon containing the words “All right, Jim, you can take over now”.

In my gloomier moments, that cover brings to mind the west’s approach to Afghanistan: “All right, Hamid, you can take over now.” Next year, Nato forces will cease major combat operations. Our cunning plan is to hand a counter-insurgency campaign of unremitting ferocity over to Afghan security forces whose competence and commitment are open to question – as the recent spate of “green on blue” attacks has shown. We have built those forces up to a total strength of about 350,000, but are now suggesting that they should be cut back  down to 250,000 shortly after we leave. All this in the lead-up to the critical 2014 Afghan presidential election in which Hamid Karzai’s successor should be chosen.

Talking to the Taliban

After what will have been 12 years of war, it is right that the west should be stopping fighting in Afghanistan. It is right that most western forces should be leaving. And it is right that we should have pledged long-term development aid to Afghanistan, which remains one of the poorest countries on earth. But it is wrong that the west should be going without a serious effort on the part of the United States to broker a lasting political settlement to the Afghan conflict.

In a speech in New York in February 2011, commemorating the late US special envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, Hillary Clinton rightly promised diplomatic and civilian surges to accompany the military surge that President Obama had ordered in his first year in office. Despite heroic efforts by Holbrooke’s successor, Marc Grossman, that diplomatic surge has never developed momentum. There have been many reasons for this: one has been the lack of political enthusiasm in America for being seen to “talk to the Taliban”, especially with Osama Bin Laden dealt with, and a presidential election under way.

But once that campaign is over, there will be an opportunity for the United States to use the diplomatic muscle that only it can provide to launch a serious effort to bring together all the parties to a conflict that has lasted more than three decades. Best would be to work from the inside out, facilitating an internal, Afghanfronted, but US- and UN-driven, process of dialogue and reconciliation. Unlike the Bonn conference of 2001, every significant player in Afghanistan would need to be involved. This would involve talking to the Taliban, but it would be about much more than that.

None of this would be easy, but the good news is that all Afghans understand that jirga – sitting down together and sorting out your problems by talking – is the way wars end. And few want to revisit the horrors of the civil war that wrecked the country after the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992.

Such dialogue would need to take place in private, and over time. It should take the form of a standing peace conference, convened in a safe place, inside Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region. On the analogy of Dayton, an airbase in a friendly Gulf country would be an obvious option.

At the end of October, Muslims celebrate the great festival of sacrifice – Eid ul-Adha. Nato could announce that, during the celebrations, and perhaps a bit beyond, its troops would use force only in self-defence. A virtuous circle of winding down the violence could be launched. If the process gained traction, there might be a case for postponing the 2014 election, using it as the culmination of a peace process, not a distraction from it.

In parallel, the US and the UN would need to engage Afghanistan’s neighbours in a collective effort to stabilise a country from whose troubles all suffer. Every nation in the region stands to gain from an Afghanistan that is no longer exporting drugs, refugees and militant violence. Encouraging them to assume some collective responsibility for the problem won’t be easy, but without such an approach there will be no peace in south-west Asia.

A job half done

Sadly, it probably won’t happen like this, or at all. Whoever wins on 6 November, there isn’t the appetite in Washington for the high-level diplomatic effort needed to leave behind lasting peace in Afghanistan. In domestic terms, it may be easier to declare half a victory and march off the battlefield. But, in doing so, the west risks getting out of Afghanistan only to have to get back in, in one way or another.

Britain’s own record of accelerated imperial withdrawal does not bode well. In August 1947, we left India earlier than planned, without having settled the problem of Kashmir; in May 1948, we gave up our mandate over Palestine early, leaving the two sides to fight it out, with consequences that are still with us; and in November 1967, we pulled out of Aden early, having failed to establish durable political arrangements for South Yemen.

Apart from longer-term national interest, there is another, even more compelling, reason for at least trying to broker a political settlement before the western armies leave Afghanistan. Rightly, we recognise the heroes of this latest Afghan war with medals, and money for re - settlement, and moments with the Olympic flame. But the truest help for heroes would be to ensure that their sacrifice has not been for naught. To show those sent to do and die a credible reason why.

Sherard Cowper-Coles’s memoir of his time as Britain’s Afghan envoy, “Cables from Kabul”, is published by HarperPress (£8.99). He writes here in a personal capacity.