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Simon Shercliff

First Secretary, Washington
Posted 22 December 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

All of us currently involved with Afghanistan and Pakistan policy have been affected by the passing of Ambassador Holbrooke – he has been a huge figure in our community, whether you are American, Afghan, Pakistani, another allied country (like us), civilian, military, government or non-government – and whether you agreed with him or not. We, in the British Embassy here in Washington, saw plenty of him over the last two years, and will miss his enormous drive, his larger-than-life personality, and his huge contribution. Our former SRAP, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, wrote a tribute to him in the Sunday Times on 19 December, and the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made statements in his honour. As Holbrooke himself often used to make reference to in public, he had a British secondee in his immediate staff throughout his time as SRAP. Jane Marriott was the first one: she has written this personal tribute below:
Innumerable obituaries on Richard C. Holbrooke have described his formidable career, his strategic successes, towering strengths and the flaws that made him human. This is a personal recollection of a man I called ‘The Boss’: “Richard” initially seemed too informal for a man who frequently frustrated me as he simultaneously evoked loyalty.
As the UK embed into the newly formed Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) team in 2009, I threw myself into the fascinating, myopic world of US foreign policy making and The Boss soon brought me into his core team. This was a blessing and a curse.
It gave me insight into policy-making circles of which I could only dream but it also delivered a challenge of keeping two loyalties: one to HMG and the other to The Boss personally. And The Boss would often drive me mad: it could take two hours of sitting in his office to deliver arguments or points that should have taken five minutes, because he was always impatient and distracted. They were usually impressive distractions: taking ’phone calls from the equally high-powered or scribbling notes to Secretary Clinton. Getting him to listen seemed impossible and the political calculator in his brain whirred into action each time we would propose a policy shift.
Yet he did listen and, days later, one would find one’s arguments or thoughts being deployed. Or they would be ignored but, a couple of weeks later, it would be clear why it wasn’t possible for him to make that play. He once sat and took my irritated questioning about why he hadn’t taken action on an aspect of the 2009 Afghan Presidential elections, as we’d discussed, only to find out that he had attempted to do so but been over-ruled, at personal cost.

He would debrief his core team about key meetings, often at 9pm on a Friday night in the clear knowledge that we would all give up our social life to be there. He’d spend 90 minutes on atmospherics and personalities and only half an hour on the policy. That was The Boss all over: focused on the people, the motivations, the politics.  At a time when no one else was looking at the Hill, The Boss would make the entire team attend briefing breakfasts for Senators. Again, we were frustrated at the apparent waste of time of having us all in there when usually only five of us spoke. But The Boss knew what he was doing: he was showcasing our work and incrementally gaining support on the Hill for the civilian effort about which he was stoically passionate.

It also reflected his care and love for us, his team. He would introduce each and every one of us at private and public events. He door-stopped Secretary Clinton to introduce me. One day, he called me into his office: he often did this with staff, only to have to wait an hour to see him. I dawdled slightly as a matter of principle, to find that The Boss was holding up the Foreign Secretary so I could say hello, before telling David Miliband that I looked a bit ill and should therefore stay at SRAP rather than go to Tehran.

He’d spend hours interrogating me about my personal life and was genuinely vexed about my permanent state of singledom (I did point out that working until 11pm every Friday didn’t help). In January 2010, during my pre-posting training, I got a text to say he was in town and he whisked me off to see The War Horse: the best seats followed by a burger in a less-than salubrious Covent Garden pub. The Boss cared about people, he cared about his people and characteristics, combined with his unerring charisma earned our respect, loyalty and love.

“Come see me” The Boss had emailed, and I was supposed to see him on 8th December, two days before he was taken ill. In the typical way in which he organised his life, I arrived to be told he’d had to dash back to New York and had left 10 minutes earlier. He sent me a text “So sorry to miss you! Next time!!!!!” A stark reminder, if one were needed, that there isn’t always a next time; even for men like Richard.

Simon Shercliff
22 December 2010

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Posted 07 December 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

Last week saw Major General Nick Carter, until a month ago the British military commander to the 55,000 ISAF troops in RC South, call through Washington. While the trip was planned some time ago, it turned out to be opportune timing because many of the administration and the wider commentariat here are currently drafting, or trying to influence the drafting of, the Annual Afghanistan/Pakistan Review.

His up-to-date views and experiences, delivered almost directly from theatre, were well received. General Carter’s main message to administration interlocutors, senators, think tanks and the media alike, was that we are making progress with the COIN campaign in the South, albeit slowly and unevenly. But to reduce the insurgency over the long-term, the only way forward is maximum possible (and visibly increasing) Afghan ownership over and participation in our shared endeavour, coupled with a flexible approach to the debate over local vs national control: there is no one-size fits all model which can be applied throughout Afghanistan.

He took this message to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. You can watch the entire presentation below compliments of CSPAN.

General Carter also gave answers to some sharp questions from Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, which help to illuminate further his experiences.

Simon Shercliff
07 December 2010

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Posted 19 November 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

This is a guest post from Neil Holland. Neil is a first secretary at the British Embassy in Washington responsible for NATO and Europe policy.

In some ways the NATO alliance is a victim of its own success. Its two distinct incarnations so far have been successively as 1) victor in the Cold War and 2) a key factor in stabilising South East Europe and ensuring that countries in Eastern Europe were able to make the transition from communist dictatorship to democratic prosperity.  In both it was very successful.  So much so that some have found it difficult to imagine NATO doing anything else.  But just as it made the transition from Cold War bloc to exporter of security and stability, today it is setting the seal on its next phase.

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron join other NATO leaders in Lisbon for a Summit meeting that will define the future of the Alliance. We are in a world in which the threats – and even the way we define our own security - are rapidly changing. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague made this point at a speech to Georgetown students this Wednesday. It is no longer enough, he said, to protect our citizens within our own borders. Our way of life requires international trade and travel, the safe flows of goods and people, open seas, secure energy supplies, access to technology, a sustainable global economy and climate and food security. And this means addressing threats long before they reach our shores.

The HMS Portland (foreground) is pictured on a recent exercise with the US Navy's USS Mahan in the Gulf of Aden. This type of joint operation is critical in tackling piracy and keeping shipping lanes open to global commerce. (Photo credit: Ministry of Defence)

NATO has already begun to change to reflect this. It is already an ‘out-of-area’ organisation, as can be seen in Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden.  Lisbon will take things further. Leaders will agree to a new “Strategic Concept” that will outline how NATO plans to retain its relevance as the most successful military alliance in history. My Ambassador, Nigel Sheinwald, talked about some of this in an article for The Hill yesterday.

Part of this process of change has been a recognition that NATO’s partners are critical to delivering its priorities. So NATO’s leaders will be joined at the Summit by two of its most important partners – President Medvedev of Russia and President Karzai of Afghanistan. Medvedev brings with him an expectation that NATO and Russia can break out of the zero-sum cycle of recent years to usher in a new period of co-operation.  Karzai’s attendance marks an important milestone in the Alliance’s long-term relationship with Afghanistan.

NATO has always shown a Madonna-esque capacity for reinvention, just as its knockers have written it off as old or irrelevant.  Like the Grand Dame of pop it keeps coming back to prove people wrong.  The Lisbon Summit marks another such occasion. NATO is showing that through new missions, new capabilities, and new structures it is reforming itself to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. In other words it is still very relevant.

A Portuguese proverb has it that ‘visits always give pleasure - if not the arrival, the departure’. On that note, thanks for reading. Simon will be back soon.

Simon Shercliff
19 November 2010

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Posted 08 November 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

Our objective for Afghanistan and Pakistan is clear: we want to minimise the chances of Al Qaeda or any other militant group using those countries as a platform to launch a terrorist attack against us. But understanding what that really means immediately takes one to complicated territory. "Not being attacked" will not be something we achieve once and then sit back and relax. Success in our policy means that we reduce the chances of an attack to the minimum acceptable level, but that level will need to be maintained every day.  
We have concluded that our best chance of achieving this objective in the long term will be through strong partnerships with both countries, where they are helping us reduce the chances of an attack. So our aiming point in Afghanistan is the creation, and critically, the maintenance, of a strong, enduring relationship. Secretary Gates often describes the massive strategic blunder we enacted by turning our back on Afghanistan in the 1990s, after the Soviets were pushed out. We are all clear that we do not want to repeat that mistake - hence the need for the long-term relationship.

But what does this mean? The British relationship with Afghanistan is currently dominated by our troop deployment and the COIN effort. But that will not always be the case. It is what happens – how our relationship with Afghanistan will be defined – after our combat troops come home that is crucial for our long term interests. Clearly it is unsustainable for us to be pouring expensive military resources into maintaining security in Afghanistan so that Al Qaeda and the like do not return to set up camp and unleash another 9/11.

So given that we do need to attain confidence in our security, surely it is better  in the long term  that the Afghans maintain security in their own country, with our support. Hence our policy of training up the Afghan National Security Forces, combined with the deliberate plan to hand over responsibility for keeping security to them, with our enduring support.

It’s not just about security, of course. We are also helping build capacity and competence in other parts of government. The longer term partnering, mentoring and support - both technical and political - are critically important.  

One of the biggest problems we have with Afghanistan policy right now is trying to convince people (in Afghanistan, in the region, and indeed worldwide) that we are going to stay in support to Afghanistan for the long term. The July 2011 date, announced by President Obama on 1 December last year, continues to be widely misunderstood. July 2011 marks the start of the transition process. Over 100,000 allied troops still in Afghanistan in August, September and October 2011 will help clarify this.

Meanwhile, President Karzai has signalled the other bookend to that process: he has said that December 2014 will be the moment at which Afghan Security Forces will be in the lead for all security aspects in Afghanistan. That means we have four years before British and allied troops should be withdrawn from the front line, and Afghans should be in the lead – but crucially with our support. Hence our Prime Minister’s pledge that there will be no British troops fighting combat missions in Afghanistan by mid-2015 (the end of this session of parliament).

What would this mean in practice? I see three major elements of an enduring relationship with Afghanistan:
1. Long-term economic and development assistance, commensurate with Afghanistan’s status as one of the poorest countries in the world;
2. An enduring military presence (small scale - nothing like the numbers that are currently there) devoted only to training and supporting the Afghan Security Forces;
3. a thicker, more reliable relationship between our peoples and our governments. Educational and cultural exchanges, trade and political support will form the backbone of this relationship.
I pointed towards this sort of relationship last year, summarising it as "we promise to stay and we promise to go".

Simon Shercliff
08 November 2010

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Posted 16 October 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

General Petraeus was in London this last week briefing our Prime Minister and others on the latest situation in Afghanistan. Obviously the agenda was dominated by discussions over the tragic death of Linda Norgrove during her attempted rescue by US Special Forces after she had been kidnapped by insurgents in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Petraeus called the investigation a "personal priority"; it will be conducted by a joint US/UK team.

One of the other issues on the agenda of this joint visit (Petraeus was accompanied by Mark Sedwill, the (British) NATO Senior Civilian in Afghanistan) was further reassurance from Whitehall that our forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review would not diminish the UK commitment to Afghanistan in any way. The Prime Minister said that our commitment was "ringfenced and iron-clad".

Whatever announcements are made next week, we will continue to have 9,500 troops out there putting themselves daily in harms way to beat back the insurgency, train Afghan Security Forces, and generally help Afghanistan get back on its feet, and we will continue to finance numerous aid and development programmes, in accordance with Afghan-led programmes and priorities. This is only fitting: we will not reduce our commitment to addressing Britains top national security priority.

Simon Shercliff
16 October 2010

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Posted 24 September 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

On 20 September, the ISAF troops responsible for planning and conducting Counter Insurgency operations in Sangin district, Helmand province, looked a little different from the day before. Until that day, the responsibility for building and maintaining security – protecting the population – in Sangin (a strategically important economic and transport hub in the northern reaches of the Helmand river valley), had lain with the British Army, as part of their contribution to ISAF’s overall effort in Afghanistan. On 20 Sept, the US Marines took on that responsibility, building on and continuing the work that British troops had done since 2006. Just as with the Brits, and according to the agreed strategy of ISAF, the USMC will conduct their work alongside their partners in this effort, the Afghan National Army.

A British Royal Marine from the Police Mentoring Troop on a routine patrol through the Sangin bazaar before the handover of security responsibility to US forces. (Photo compliments of the Ministry of Defence)

What does this mean?

To the average Afghan trying to live in peace in Sangin, and to the average insurgent bringing continual nihilistic violence to his own countrymen in that area, there will be no change other than a slightly different uniform being worn by the ISAF troops protecting the former and isolating the later. There will be the same number overall of UK troops in Helmand as there has been for the last several months. There are more US Marines in Helmand now than there were six months ago, because they comprise much of President Obama’s surge announced on 1 December 2009. Because of this overall troop increase within ISAF’s resources, General Petraeus has decided that the deployment of his total command (now nearing 135,000 throughout Afghanistan), should be reconfigured slightly to give him and ISAF the maximum possible chances of achieving the goals set out in our shared strategy. The British Government clearly want to play our part to maximise the chances of this outcome, which is why we are not reducing our troop numbers in any way as a result of this redeployment. Our troops will therefore concentrate their efforts where there is a greater density of Afghans (further down the Helmand river valley in the central part of the province), so we can protect them more effectively.

What does this not mean?

This does not mean that the Brits have had enough in Helmand and are pulling out. Nor does it mean that the USMC are coming in to do what we could not. As ever, British and American troops will continue to work hand in hand with their Afghan counterparts in pursuit of our counter-insurgency goals. The British Government remains steadfast in its commitment to the effort in Afghanistan, and it will continue to invest resources and energy into making Afghanistan more stable, so that Britain can be safer.

Many people have spoken about the change and its implications; the official British Ministry of Defence article explaining the change is here. But I draw out two quotes which help to contextualise this. First, the Commanding General in RC(SW), USMC Maj-Gen Richard Mills, who said:  "UK forces have carved out a solid security bubble that we are moving US forces into. They are leaving solid professional relationships with the people and the ANSF in Sangin. We will continue to build on the successes and continue to work with the local population and forces there." And the District Governor of Sangin, Mohammad Sharif, said:"The attitude, service and sacrifice that has been paid by the Royal Marines has been exemplary and has set a very good example for the people of Sangin. As 40 Commando goes, they will be missed by the people of Sangin and they will be in our thoughts and minds forever as we will always remember their hard work and efforts."

Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, paid warm words of tribute to our troops who have served so well there in such difficult circumstances over the last four years.

Simon Shercliff
24 September 2010

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Posted 20 September 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

This is a guest blog from Richard O'Hara, who is a second secretary based at the British Embassy in Washington. Richard travelled to Afghanistan to serve as an election observer.

On 18 September, I was on hand to witness Afghanistan holding its second parliamentary election since 2001. I have been working on Afghan elections in various capacities, both in Afghanistan and in Washington (where I’m now based), for more than three years now.  But after being out of the country for last years’ presidential and provincial council elections, from a personal point of view it’s been extremely rewarding to be present for this year’s parliamentary election.

The British Embassy in Kabul, and our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah, sent election observers all over the country: from Herat in the west, to Balkh in north, Helmand in the south, and even the remote Badakhshan in the shadow of the Hindu Kush in north eastern Afghanistan.  I, however, remained in the capital and spent the day touring polling centres with colleagues from the Danish Embassy.

An early start saw us arrive at a mosque in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul to witness the final electoral preparations, and anticipated opening of polling at 7am.  I saw Afghan election officials dutifully setting up polling booths and ballot boxes, all under the watchful eyes of numerous agents representing some of the 600 candidates standing for office in Kabul.  At this stage, the only problem I witnessed was the difficulty the polling centre workers were having getting the seals off the bottles of indelible ink used to mark voter’s fingers. But this was soon solved by a timely intervention by a member of my Danish close protection team, and his rather large knife.

So all was going well, until at the last minute the local mullah decided that he did not want voting to take place inside the actual mosque. Cut to a mad scramble to get all the polling material set up again on the sizeable porch outside the mosque, while a growing queue of, slightly agitated, voters waited outside.

After that slight false start, I moved onto other polling centres throughout Kabul, predominately in mosques and schools especially converted for the day. In one classroom, I saw posters explaining the election process half obscuring existing biology class posters showing the human digestive cycle (in somewhat graphic detail).  A common feature in many of these venues, though, was that I seemed to spend more time being observed than actually observing. Every time I entered a polling station, a large crowd of Afghans would quickly gather to stare in mild bewilderment at the strange foreigner trying to squeeze himself into a child’s school desk in a small classroom.  Although, on reflection, much of this might actually have been down to the presence of my female colleague from the Danish Embassy.

Another common feature throughout the day was the presence of the aforementioned candidate agents. Every polling station had a specially tapped off area where dozens of young Afghans would sit all day, scrutinizing every aspect of the election process, and proudly telling me why their candidate was better than all the others. In fact, in many polling stations the agents seemed to outnumber the actual voters.

After a long day in the field, I returned to the British Embassy with my fellow observers, both from the UK and a number of other Embassies in Kabul, to compare notes on how the day had gone.  Much will be said and written about these elections in the coming days, and I don’t want to pre-judge the outcome. But I will say that I personally witnessed Afghan election workers going about their business in a professional and organised manner, and many Afghans - young and old, male and female - proudly exercising their right to vote.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan and the Electoral Complaints Commission now have a lot of work to do. During this time, it will be important for everyone involved to act responsibly and respect the electoral process through to its final conclusion.  But from a personal and professional point of view, I hope that these elections will represent another step in the process of establishing and stable and secure Afghanistan.

Simon Shercliff
20 September 2010

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Posted 17 September 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

 As a Brit, still more a Brit actively involved in policy-making over the current challenges in Afghanistan, you might think that watching a theatre production which exposed 150 years worth of British experience in Afghanistan, albeit in a subtle and charming way, might have been a bit close to the bone for me.

But, like General Richards (a former British commanding General of international forces in Afghanistan, and our next Chief of the Defence Staff), I found the experience immensely rewarding, and entertaining. The Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company is hosting the London-based Tricycle Theatre at the Sydney Harman Hall between 15-25 September, before they head off around the country. The British Council have been instrumental in facilitating the tour. The concept is simple: a series of 30 minute plays walks you through Britain’s history in Afghanistan, from the rout of the first Afghan war in 1840 to the present.

Clearly, an enormous amount of thought and research has gone into telling the story accurately. The scene in the British Foreign Office was uncomfortably familiar (a regional expert being grilled for his thoughts on where policy should go next). The fear, disbelief and confusion showed by the British Soldiers at Jalalabad as they discussed the aftermath of the massacre of their bretheren during the retreat from Kabul in 1840 was hugely compelling. And the hilarious depiction of Sir Mortimer Durand trying to persuade Abdur Rahman Khan, the then Amir of Afghanistan, in 1893 that drawing a line on a map would solve all his problems in one fell swoop exposed the huge cultural divide between colonial Britain and the tribal Afghanistan of those times. Finally, watching figures who are well known in today’s Afghanistan firmament (eg Gen McChrystal, Willie Dalrymple, Matt Waldman) being played by actors on stage was somewhat unsettling, but once again their scripts (not to mention the actors’ uncannily accurate portrayal of the real characters’ posture and mannerisms) were perfectly pitched.

A big thank you to the Tricyle and Shakespear Theatre companies – this is a great contribution to our overall understanding of Afghanistan and our history there.

Simon Shercliff
17 September 2010

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Posted 10 September 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

Today a small group of us at the Embassy are participating in a 12-hour bike-a-thon - in aid of the Pakistan Flood victims. As a team, we will cycle on a bike in the gym for 12 solid hours (one hour each). The aim is simple enough: we just wanted to do our little bit to raise money to help the millions of people who have been so badly affected by the disastrous floods in Pakistan.


So this is a shameless plug. Many people have already given generously to this cause. But the longer this goes on, the clearer it is that the impact will be huge and long lasting for millions of people in Pakistan's affected areas. For example there is now a serious risk to survivors from potentially deadly diseases, including cholera, which spread as a result of contaminated water. So, if you haven't yet donated, or even if you have but you felt able to donate more, then please do consider sponsoring us.

More details, and an easy donation mechanism, can be found at: (for UK taxpayers – Giftaid enabled. Donations through this site will go through the Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK), or (for US credit card holders. Donations through this site will go through Oxfam US).
Many thanks indeed.

Simon Shercliff
10 September 2010

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Posted 02 September 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

Amid the reams of commentary over President Obama’s speech on 31 August, marking the official end to Operation Iraqi Freedom, there has not been much attention paid to one key line he made around half way through. In describing how the remaining US troops in Iraq (until the end of 2011), combined with the enduring legions of US diplomats and aid workers, would focus their efforts on supporting the Iraqi government and people as they made their own way in the world, the President said “This new approach reflects our long term partnership with Iraq – one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”.

This is the foundation of what we are trying to do with Afghanistan too. Obama also said on 31 August, "We can’t do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves.” What is behind that statement is our desire that the Afghan state, on behalf of its people, can organise itself, defend itself, and create prosperous conditions for its people. In doing so, we would like it to become robust enough to be able to repel the likes of Al Qaeda from setting up shop there and plotting/training to conduct violent terrorist atrocities against our interests. We are not suggesting that we can compel Afghanistan and its people to reach this state – all we can do is support them in their own quest to do so.

When making this argument, often a sceptical interlocutor will ask at this point: “OK, but what if they do not want to go in the same direction we want them to go?” The answer to that is a long term relationship, based upon mutual interest and respect which can be leveraged towards our interests in the way in which all international relationships work. This is the job of the diplomats, aid workers and military trainers, who are responsible for maintaining and enhancing relationships between countries like the US or UK and numerous other states around the world, out of the headlines and away from the political spotlight that conflict brings. In other words, the sort of long-term relationship that President Obama described as now in place between the US and Iraq.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is introduced to a local representative by Habibullah, centre, the district governor of Nad Ali, during a visit to Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Andrew Winning, pool)

Using different words, our new Deputy Prime Minister made a similar point during his visit to Afghanistan on the same day. Talking to British soldiers in Helmand, he said: “What you’re doing is you’re creating the space for Afghan society to find its own feet and that’s the only way we’re going to have stability.  That’s the only way we’re going to have the kind of stability in Afghanistan we need for the safety of our families and our communities back home.”

Simon Shercliff
02 September 2010

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Posted 23 July 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

Earlier this week, our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, joined 40 other Foreign Ministers, 10 Deputy Foreign Ministers and more than 10 Heads of International Organisations in Kabul (over 80 different delegations in total) for the latest in what has been a series on international conferences on Afghanistan. Previous events, stretching back to 2001, had been held in places like Berlin and Paris, and most recently London in January of this year. But this is the first time that one of these events had actually been held in Afghanistan itself. In fact, it was the largest gathering of senior international figures on this scale in Afghanistan in recent history. Just the fact that an event of this size went ahead, and without any significant logistical or security problems, marked it as significant.

Photo by Eric Kanalsteinm / UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan / Flickr

But the importance of this conference was not just that Afghanistan is now able to organise and host something on this scale. It was also that the Afghans were the ones who were setting the agenda and driving the substance of the event. This has been a recurring theme over the last year, as Afghanistan has increasingly been taking greater ownership of its future. The Kabul conference was really the latest in a series of events on that theme, beginning with the speech President Karzai gave at his inauguration last November. He spoke of Afghanistan taking a lead on their own security, development and governance, and regional relations. These strands were then built upon at the January’s London conference, the Consultative Peace Jirga in June, and now the Kabul conference.

This conference allowed the Afghan government to set out the further steps it will take to build on the momentum generated over the last year. It presented its priorities to bring about improved security, economic development and better governance to the people of Afghanistan. And those members of the international community present, including our Foreign Secretary, were able to take the opportunity to express their continuing support for Afghanistan.

The Kabul conference did not solve all of the challenges facing Afghanistan overnight. But it was another important step on the road towards the ultimate goal of an Afghanistan that is strong enough to chart its own way in the world, without posing a threat to others.

This is a guest post from Richard O'Hara, who is a Second Secretary for Afghanistan policy at the British Embassy in Washington.

Simon Shercliff
23 July 2010

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Posted 02 July 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments
Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, have all spoken in recent days about the UK's contribution to Afghanistan. A central theme from them all was a strong and determined emphasis of commitment to the COIN strategy outlined by President Obama on 1 December last year. 

Inevitably, though, another issue they all had to address was the question of when UK troops will be coming home . The PM said that UK forces would not remain in Afghanistan for a "day longer" than it takes to ensure the country's government can handle its own security, adding that he thought our troops would be home by the end of the next parliament (2015). Mr Hague said that "we are committed to the Afghans being able to conduct their military operations and security and that takes time. But I would be very surprised if that took longer than 2014." And Dr Fox has said that "to leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure...we must see the job through". He defined "the job" as "to degrade and manage the terrorist threat emanating from the region to ensure al-Qaida cannot once again have sanctuary in Afghanistan".

Despite the different formulations, all three reflect the same view: first, that we want to bring our troops home as soon as possible. The US President said on 1 December last year that we were not seeking permanent military bases on Afghan soil; there is no sense in keeping them there any longer than necessary.  But also that we need to leave Afghanistan with  the capability to manage its own security and keep extremist forces - that can threaten the UK and our allies - at bay  (i.e. to do the job currently being done by ISAF troops). As the Afghan Security Forces gradually gain in competence and capacity over the coming months and years, so the numbers of our troops necessary for front line combat will diminish. When combined with greater reassurance for the Afghan people arising from increasingly better governance and economic opportunities (integral elements of the COIN strategy), this evolution will enable us to bring our troops home.

Simon Shercliff
02 July 2010

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Posted 10 June 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments
I have just spent a stimulating couple of days at a conference organised by CENTCOM, looking at "The Art of the Possible in Afghanistan and Pakistan". Experts debated and argued over every aspect of the current situation in both countries. Gatherings like this are always useful to check that we are not missing anything, as well as to develop new ideas.  
One of the issues which got plenty of air time was the development of a political settlement for Afghanistan, not least because the Consultative Peace Jirga, at which over a thousand representative Afghans discussed just this issue, had recently taken place in Kabul. 
On the military side, ISAF's COIN strategy is now pretty well developed, communicated, understood, and accepted inside Afghanistan, in countries of the region and internationally. And although the headlines have been grabbed by the Marjah and Kandahar elements, the strategy is being comprehensively implemented throughout Afghanistan. But there is plenty more uncertainty over the political strategy which needs to complement ISAF's work. Everyone agrees that we need to develop one, but there is little consensus on  what it should look like.
I imagine a political strategy for Afghanistan as defining the pathway to the future shape of a peaceful Afghanistan and its relationships with its neighbours and the wider world  - a political settlement. At the end of that pathway is a steady-state situation: an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours, and robust enough to sustain its own economic and political stability, and repel the likes of Al Qaida from setting up shop there.
How do we do this? We need to understand and address the perceptions of Afghans. They are the ones who need  to  believe in themselves, their government and their future - they need reassurance on all those things. And they need reassurance that whatever settlement is eventually reached will survive. In parallel, we need to persuade the spoilers to stop spoiling. Reconciliation is often touted as the way to achieve all this. But reconciliation is not a strategy which will take us to the political settlement. It one of many tools that we must use to get there. It must play its part in a wider political strategy, including efforts to bolster good governance and representative government throughout Afghanistan.
As President Obama, General McChystal, NATO Secretary-General Rassmussen and several other senior politicians and officials have said, we should not expect results overnight - this is a long struggle. 

Simon Shercliff
10 June 2010

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Posted 24 May 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments

Now that the dust has settled - a bit at least - back in London after our recent election, I am allowed to blog again. Interested readers will, I'm sure, already have some idea of the historic nature of our new government - a coalition between two of the three major political parties in the UK, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Plenty has been written already about what this all means for us as a country. All I want to do is set out briefly a few facts which might help clarify some of the questions swirling around the new British Foreign Policy, in particular how it relates to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What has changed? A few different people and structures are now in place. We have a new Conservative Foreign Secretary, William Hague. He has a team of five Junior Ministers, one of them coming from the Liberal Democrat Party. William Hague has brought with him three special advisors (political appointees). And in terms of personnel changes, that's it, for the entire British Foreign Service. The other big difference that this government brings with them is the establishment of a National Security Council . More detail will emerge on how this new body will fit into our existing system. At this stage, the main thing to say about it is that it is headed up by the former Permanent Under Secretary (or boss) of the FCO, Sir Peter Ricketts.  

And on policy, William Hague has given us, the FCO, his five priorities: 


  • First, to bring strategic decisions about foreign policy, security policy and development together in a National Security Council.
  • Second, to maintain a strong commitment to the transatlantic alliance and with it our engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Third, we are determined to build up British engagement beyond Europe and North America.  Many of you are engaged in that already, but we want to give a new impetus to that.
  • Fourth, we seek the effective reform of international institutions.
  • Fifth, we have to uphold the highest values of our society while we pursue our legitimate national interests, which means our actions must be consistent with support for political freedom, economic liberalism, human rights and the eradication of poverty.


Note the second bullet - that gives me my marching orders. As to what that really means - our agenda is full. President Karzai has just visited DC, and then London to meet our new PM. I am now working with my US counterparts in channeling the outflow from that. Reconciliation is high on the agenda - President Karzai will be holding a Peace Jirga in Afghanistan at the end of this month. Then we have the Kabul Conference in July. The Kandahar effort will be ongoing throughout the summer, with the inflow of more US troops around the country.  And the Afghan Parliamentary elections are due to be held in the autumn. There will be several more senior engagements (both US and UK) with Pakistan throughout the year, including another Friends of Democratic Pakistan Ministerial meeting. And then towards the end of the year, President Obama will be holding another review of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So there will be plenty going on; I hope to chip in on the action from time to time on this blog.

Simon Shercliff
24 May 2010

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Posted 11 March 2010 by Simon Shercliff | Comments
There is plenty in David Miliband’s speech entitled: “Afghanistan – how to end the war” [text][video], to give food for further impassioned debate over exactly what reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan might mean. It remains a deeply difficult issue, with the words and indeed the deeds of senior Afghan, regional and international figures continuing to resonate well with some and jar uncomfortably with others. The British Government has been striving to articulate and encourage a political strategy into which the military strategy can dock. We believe that a key element of such a political strategy has to be a coherent reconciliation programme leading to an eventual political settlement. This speech outlines plenty of our detailed thinking.

Perhaps the key point to draw out is, drawing closely from Afghan culture and history, he says that talking and fighting do not need to go one after the other. Now is the time to start creating the conditions for an eventual political settlement – while the hard-edged business of the military counter-insurgency effort continues. Indeed a successful military strategy will in itself help to create those conditions. In other words, we can talk (or more to the point, the Afghans can talk) and fight at the same time.

Simon Shercliff
11 March 2010

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