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Simon Shercliff

First Secretary, Washington

The Art of the Possible - Towards Afghanistan's Political Settlement

Posted 10 June 2010 by Simon Shercliff  
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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The new government and Afghanistan

Posted 24 May 2010 by Simon Shercliff  

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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What is so important about doing things together?

Posted 12 February 2010 by Simon Shercliff  
The widely trailed Operation Moshtarak, or ‘Together”, is due to start imminently. Operation Together is another vital step in the efforts of the Afghan government, with the support of the international community, to push back the insurgency. In this, the first major operation under the new joint strategy embraced by President Karzai, President Obama, our own Prime Minister Brown, and the rest of the international community, the focus is on protecting the local population, working in partnership with communities, local and national government and the Afghan National Security Forces. The operation will extend Afghan Government control in central Helmand, bringing long coveted freedom of movement for the local people, the chance to rebuild their lives and thus restricting the potential for the insurgency to return and take root once again.

But as we have said time and again, we cannot succeed by military means alone. We must implement a political strategy alongside the military one. Our Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, puts it well: “The Taliban must be out-governed, not just out-gunned”. Military and political strategies are not separate and distinct – they have to be synchronised to make sense. So this new approach is epitomised in the title of this latest Operation: Together. With the full support and participation of the Afghan Government, the civilian-led PRT in Helmand, the ANSF and ISAF, this operation is walking the walk of a politically-led counter-insurgency campaign. Coordinated with, and immediately after the military phases (shape and clear), will be “hot stabilisation” humanitarian and aid activities and programmes to bring governance and longer-term development to the affected areas (hold and build). The strategy aims to persuade the local population that their government, supported by the international community and in consultation with local leaders themselves, has both a plan and the desire to make their lives better. The Governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, supported by the new NATO Senior Civilian, Mark Sedwill, outlined this approach in a joint press conference on 9 February.

By reassuring the population in this way, we aim to bring the people closer to their government; the government closer to being truly representative and the Taliban and their like a less attractive option for those who previously felt they had no choice. ‘Together’ we can get that one step closer to Afghan security and stability; a key to ensuring our own.  

Simon Shercliff
12 February 2010

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Looking forward in Afghanistan

Posted 19 August 2009 by Simon Shercliff  
Nearly there now - the Afghan Presidential and Provincial Council elections happen on Thursday this week. Plenty has been said and written about them already, so I will not add much more here. Suffice to say that President Obama has often described these elections as "the most important event in Afghanistan this year". They are hugely important, for us all - elections that are perceived by the Afghan people as credible, inclusive and secure will provide momentum to the task that we are all engaged in: helping Afghanistan stand on its own as a self-confident, robust state which can repel the likes of Al Qaida from ever again taking root in their country. In spite of the mood of intimidation which the Taliban are trying desprately to forge (including those two terrible suicide attacks in Kabul over the last couple of days), I hope that the Afghan people will participate wholeheartedly, and with optimism that these elections will help them along their difficult path.
In addressing the ongoing insurgency and forthcoming elections, David Miliband wrote Monday in the Daily Telegraph that "whether military breakthroughs are translated into strategic success depends on politics". Essentially this means that  "only legitimate, clean and competent Afghan government, recognising local tribal structures as well as national democratic ones, can provide an alternative focus for loyalty [for the Afghan people]. Effective protection and a better life is the best way to keep the insurgency at bay". And once the elections are over, that "there are three priorities for the new government if it is to defeat the insurgency and build a more stable and prosperous state". These are: 


  • a clear determination to protect the interests of ordinary Afghans - this means better governance. 
  • a strategy to reconcile and reintegrate insurgents prepared to give up violence.
  • better cooperation with Afghanistan's neighbours, particularly Pakistan.


He concludes that "the next Afghan government has a duty to show its determination to root out corruption, the dedication to build a state that properly protects its people and the vision to build an inclusive political settlement. In that work they deserve strong international support. Britain's job is to be part of that effort".
Readers might like to link through to this new site just published by the British Government's Afghan unit in London. It pulls together all of our relevant material on the forthcoming Afghan elections, plus further links to other interesting articles, including a blog by Lisa Bandari, one of my political officer colleagues out in the British Embassy in Kabul, who has been following the elections build-up closely for several months.

Simon Shercliff
19 August 2009

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