Reporting from London — From 2007 to 2010, Sherard Cowper-Coles served as Britain's ambassador and special representative to Afghanistan, giving him an inside view of the struggle on the battlefield and in the corridors of power to stabilize the war-torn country.
Since retiring last year, the veteran diplomat has become an outspoken critic of British and U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Instead of pursuing a futile obsession with military supremacy, he says, the U.S. and its allies should lay down arms and concentrate on achieving a political deal, which means sitting across from the Taliban at the bargaining table, however distasteful that may seem.
Cowper-Coles, 56, has just published "Cables from Kabul," a memoir of his years in Afghanistan. He spoke to the Times on Saturday at his home in West London.
Have both Britain and the U.S. accepted the need for a political settlement with the Taliban?
President Obama said it explicitly on the eve of his state visit to Britain, and [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton said it, although not quite explicitly, when she called for a political surge … in February of this year. In my view and the view of many others who follow Afghanistan, this is too late, or maybe too late, but better late than never.
Your book criticizes the U.S. in particular for employing tactics but no strategy in Afghanistan. Do you feel that's still the case?
There's a disjunction between the trebling in the number of Special Forces strikes, the amount of ordnance dropped from the air in Afghanistan over the past year since Gen. [Stanley A.] McChrystal left, and the secretary of State's and the president's call for a political surge.
Given that we all want our troops out of combat by 2015, we need to be stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing down the temperature, winding down the violence.... It's a mistake to believe you can shoot or bomb your way to a stable political solution in Afghanistan.
You advocate bringing home troops to the U.S. and Britain at a faster pace. Wouldn't that just encourage the Taliban and other actors not to negotiate?
Actually the reverse, because the Taliban's … problem with us is the presence of foreign troops on their soil. What I'm advocating is not so much getting troops back to Britain or America as getting them out of combat. You can pull them back into bases across Afghanistan....
It's a question of showing the Taliban you're serious about wanting an honorable peace for all the internal parties to the Afghan conflict [and] also all the regional parties.... The Taliban know that they're not going to win total victory; they know they're never again going to rule the whole of Afghanistan.
Are there credible interlocutors among the Taliban who would make negotiations worthwhile, on a national basis?
We have to create those interlocutors.... We do that by doing what Ambassador Mark Grossman, Richard Holbrooke's successor, is doing, which is marching determinedly through the foothills [in search of people to talk to].
As well as pull, we need push. We need Pakistan on [board], pushing them to negotiate.... But we need also to include India, China, Russia, Iran. All of them need to be dealt into this to avoid the Great Game, Round 3....
This is about much more than talking to the Taliban. It's about talking to all the parties to a multi-decade, multidimensional, multi-player conflict.... The conflict goes back way beyond our arrival in Afghanistan, even beyond the arrival of the Soviet 40th Army in December 1979. It's a much deeper conflict about the nature of the Afghan polity, between Islam and secularism, modernism and traditionalism, town and country, Tajik and Uzbek.
Talking to the Taliban is an idea that's been around for several years but hasn't succeeded. What makes it any different now?
What has been missing until now is unambiguous American commitment to negotiating. America often finds it difficult to talk to its enemies, but that's how insurgencies end....
President Obama recognized that from the beginning, but because of the pressures from the American military and others, it's taken him two years to get round to actually turning those words into real action.
Is training of the Afghan army and police to take over security actually working?
Not really. That's the bad news. The good news is that it's beside the point. It's based on the mistaken view that you're going to pacify these areas by transferring responsibility for garrisoning them from the 101st Airborne to the 205 Hero Corps of the Afghan National Army.... That is not the way to stabilize the areas, by garrisoning them with soldiers and police.
These great tribal areas with a long tradition of violent resistance to outsiders will be stabilized and pacified only if they're empowered to do it themselves, subject to reasonable checks and balances.