David Miliband: "The War in Afghanistan: Mending it not just Ending it"
April 13, 2011
Author: Sarah Kneezle, Coordinator, The Future of Diplomacy Project
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The Future of Diplomacy Project
David Miliband, former UK Foreign Secretary, was a guest of the Future of Diplomacy Project on April 14, 2011 and discussed his vision of the global village with degree students from the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard faculty and experts. He also answered questions on his vision of a political solution in Afghanistan, which he detailed in a public speech delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on April 13, 2011.
This is a remarkable time to be discussing foreign policy, because we are living through the most intensive period of global integration and interdependence the world has ever known.
Economic power is shifting to the East. The foreign policy consequences have hardly begun to be played out. Political power structures are challenged by new ways for individual citizens to communicate and connect. As we see from the epochal events in the Middle East, the action is exciting, but the result is unknown.
Today, however, I address a conflict that is old, tiring, expensive, brutal. I do so because I fear that the war in Afghanistan will once again become the ‘forgotten war’, as it did with such dangerous consequences in the years after 2002.
This is my case:
- that we the West have effectively announced a date, 2014, for the end of the war;
- but we have not put in place the strategy for political negotiations actually to end it;
- and the longer we wait the weaker our leverage and position will be;
- threatening both our substantive long term interests and the final narrative of the Afghan drama that began on 9/11;
- so we urgently need to set out our view of the end game, and a process to get there;
- and in this lecture I will set out my ideas about how this can be done.
The last few weeks have seen tentative signs of a welcome turn in policy. Secretary Clinton spoke in an important speech to the Asia Society in February of a “political surge”. The New Yorker reported that secret direct talks between the US and senior Taliban leaders had actually started . Nato Senior Civilian Representative Mark Sedwill said last month “the time is now right to take the risk and pursue the political agenda with the same energy we have brought to the military and civilian surges” . And the deeply impressive Brahimi-Pickering Task Force report concluded that ‘the best moment to start a political process toward reconciliation is now’ .
But these deviations from the otherwise relentless focus on military operations, allied and Afghan, need to be taken to a whole new level of urgency, coherence and effort if they are to get purchase on the situation on the ground. At the moment they are eddies in the tide; they need to become the tide. My purpose in this lecture is to rally maximum support behind that cause.
A year ago I spoke here at MIT and made the most explicit set of proposals from any foreign government for how to end the war in Afghanistan. I said that foreign troops and aid workers were making a difference, but I argued that military effort and development work would ultimately be for nought – “unsustainable” – if they were not directed towards the achievement of a political settlement, or series of political settlements, across the villages and valleys of Afghanistan.
The political settlement I advocated was first to be internal, involving all those willing to participate across the political spectrum. I said that while it was reasonable for there to be conditions for the conclusion of political talks, for example the need to keep Al Qaeda out, I argued that there should be no pre conditions for entry to the talks. I also said that for an internal political settlement to work, it needed to be supported by an external, ‘regional’, political settlement, involving all the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan committing themselves to support stability inside their war torn neighbour.
I concluded that unless a political settlement was actively pursued, then it would become harder and harder to bring the war to an end.
One year on, I return to my case with more urgency and more detail. Because the case for a political strategy to match the military tactics being pursued with extraordinary bravery and patience by foreign troops and by Afghans, is stronger and more urgent than ever.
In early 2010, the war seemed endless, because no one was talking about how to end it. A year on, NATO has pledged to transfer security leadership to Afghan forces by 2014. Media shorthand has presented 2014 as a date for the end of the war. For example, the BBC report on the Lisbon NATO summit last year was simply: “Karzai and NATO agree Afghanistan exit strategy”.
In truth, some countries have been categorical that they will be out of Afghanistan completely, others like the US have kept options open, and still others, like the UK, have both said that they will definitely exit according to a fixed calendar (in the UK case 2015), and that conditions on the ground will be determinant, while also leaving unclear whether withdrawal is only about combat troops or includes training support .
The establishment of a timetable, however caveated, shared by ISAF and the Afghan government, has had a calming, even sussurating effect on the politics of the Afghan war – as if announcing an end date is the same as bringing the war to an end. General Petraeus’ recent hearings on Capitol Hill were sparsely attended and sparsely covered.
But while there has been a lot of discussion about dates, and some feuds about them, there has been next to no discussion about how a durable, secure exit for foreign troops is to be engineered in a way that does justice to the blood and treasure, Afghan and foreign, that has been spilled since 2001, or to the interests of Afghans and the West in the outcome.
The full transcript can be found here:
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