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Philip Cane: David Miliband’s plan for Afghanistan has the right focus but is plagued with naivety

Picture 2 Philip Cane is Conservative activist and a second year International Politics student at Aberystwyth University who you can follow on Twitter here.

The Former Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband has over the past few days been courting the media with his new strategy for Afghanistan. His opinion piece in the New York Times, speech at MIT and interview on Newsnight outline a plan for political engagement and ultimate ‘end game ‘for the country.

The focus of the plan is correct in identifying that both the West have set an end date of 2014 for combat operations in Afghanistan, yet there is no ‘endgame’ to prevent an ongoing insurgency. ‘Our leverage will decline, not improve, as 2014 approaches. The insurgency can spread, outstripping the ability of international and Afghan forces to check its growth. The warlords can strengthen their grip. Inter-ethnic strife can come to look more and more like civil war.’

The coming months and weeks ahead in Helmand and other provinces will give an indication of how successful President Obama’s troop surge has been at creating the necessary conditions for development and vital training of the Afghan National Army and Police. Without question the summer months will be brutal and bloody like those before them. But regardless of how many miles the green zone extends or how many markets are opened, Mr Miliband is right, ‘military effort and development work would ultimately be for nought if they were not directed towards the achievement of a political settlement.’

The ‘Miliband Plan’ identifies that the current framework for engagement, like the international conferences in Kabul and Bonn have ‘scant agenda or preparation’ to lead to any lasting change. He argues that instead we must approach this summer with a ‘whole new level of urgency, coherence and effort’ to mirror the ‘political surge’ that Secretary of State Clinton spoke of in February.

Alas though Mr Miliband identifies the most obvious and pressing issues plaguing the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, his answer is as naive and short sighted as existing problem.  At the core of the plan is the notion of a new UN envoy to the country, tasked with being President Hamid Karzai’s principal interlocutor, liaising with General Petraeus  to ensure that military strategy mirrors the political ‘endgame’, and creating a framework within which ‘the political strength of the UN... can bear full fruit.’  The problem with the job description is that you wouldn’t want it, who can think of a diplomat who would wish to be wrestle for influence between the US military, the corrupt Afghan government and the fanatical Taliban?

Even stranger is that the situation to which Mr Miliband refers as ‘the epochal events in the Middle East’, has once again exposed the United Nations as an; outdated body that dithers and delays, while blatant violations of the fundamental principles for which it preaches are slain before it. No new UN envoy could be sent without months of bickering and vetoing.

The idea as well that this moderator would ‘come from the Muslim world’ is more than idealistic. The ‘epochal events’ to which he starts his article fundamentally undermines this notion. As dictators across the region fall like flies and ministers come and go to appease protesters who can be chosen? How can you find a mediator who is acceptable to the Afghan government, the Pashtun majority Taliban, the ethnically diverse tribal leaders and the liberal democratic Christian Judaic West before the yearend? And then expect them to prepare for negotiations, gain personal relations and acclimatise to their role is fanciful to say the least.

Mr Miliband also floats the idea that the mediator ‘should for a start develop the idea of a safe place in a third country — an Arabian Gulf State, Turkey or Japan’, examples in Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine show that external talks can drag on for many years and become fixated on the most minute of details. 

But how should Conservatives approach the ‘Miliband Plan’? The plan is grounded in reality, the reality is that there will not be a day when the Taliban run up the white flag and the troops return victorious. We must realise that although the Taliban need to be suppressed they need to be integrated back into the structure of Afghanistan, instead of being the ‘problem’. Until the international community properly addresses this, a true ‘endgame’ will not materialise. In this sense we should build on the idea that Mr Miliband first floated in 2009 of long term engagement. On the other hand at the Conservative manifesto called for a liberal conservative foreign policy, to this end we should follow its advice; ‘our policy must be hard-headed and practical, dealing with the world as it is and not as we wish it were’. Thus the ‘Miliband Plan’ subtracts the reality of international politics and the hegemonic powers in play and replaces them with a naive and idealistic framework which won’t result in an ‘endgame’.


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