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Martin Parsons: Leaving Afghanistan without a shot being fired? British foreign policy since 2001

By Martin Parsons

The anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, the world has moved on, perhaps too quickly. But two other anniversaries loom that should give us pause to reflect again on what has happened as a direct response to 9/11. The first is the start of initially small scale western military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001. The second was the decision of the British government in autumn 2005 to send British troops to southern Afghanistan, on a mission about which the then defence secretary Dr John Reid publically stated that he would be very happy for them to leave in three years time ‘without a shot having been fired’, stressing that the British peacekeeping troops he was sending to Helmand were completely distinct from the US led forces hunting al Qaeda.

The anniversary of both of these should give us cause to reflect – did we get it right? should we have intervened? and was there any alternative? could we have left Afghanistan without a shot being fired? They also allow us to reflect more widely about the general approach that British foreign policy has taken since 1997.

British Foreign Policy after 1997

In the period between 1997 and the general election of 2010 there were two major shifts in foreign policy which provide a framework within which we must view policy towards Afghanistan. The first was a shift towards a foreign policy that in British terms could be construed as Gladstonian liberal interventionism, which had significant parallels to some aspects of neoconservative foreign policy in the USA. However, as Blair was essentially a liberal in many aspects of his domestic and foreign policy that term seems most appropriate to describe his policy of liberal interventionism in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Iraq as well as Afghanistan. This approach to foreign policy contrasted with earlier more Conservative approaches to foreign policy that were based on the somewhat less interventionist approach that was summarised by the statement of the Conservative Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury that the British government’s ‘first duty is towards the people of this country to maintain their interest and rights; our second is to all humanity”.

The second shift in foreign policy after 1997 involved a series of measures that effectively reduced the ability of the Foreign Office to use traditional diplomacy and soft power options. These included a shift in the focus of foreign policy decisions away from the Foreign Office to No 10, which limited the usefulness of the human expertise and wisdom and that had been built up over many years at the Foreign Office. This intellectual treasury was itself allowed to wither as the importance of such traditional forms of diplomatic training such as language acquisition were downgraded and in an act of cultural and intellectual vandalism the Foreign Office Library was closed and the accumulated wealth of the wisdom and knowledge scattered never to be reassembled. At the same time one of the key levers of soft power – government funded overseas development aid was removed from the remit of the foreign office into a new and separate Department for International Development . What these accumulated steps meant was that in the last 14 years the soft power capability of the foreign office in terms of both cultural and linguistic understanding and leverage was significantly diminished.

In the light of that it is instructive to examine British policy toward Afghanistan- and particularly to examine whether we used all available soft power options or whether we relied too heavily simply on the hard option of military intervention. Those questions are particularly important as we approach the 10 year anniversary of western military intervention in Afghanistan and also arrive at 6 year anniversary of John Reid’s announcement of the deployment of British troops in southern Afghanistan.

British Policy towards Afghanistan since 2001

Thereis no question that the Taliban were seeking to create in Afghanistan a radical Islamist state. Nor is there any question that Osama bin Laden and his associates, who the Taliban had invited to Afghanistan, were intent on using the county as a base to mount a global jihad, committing acts of large scale terrorism to try to force western countries to submit to Islamic law and government.

The question is, over the last 10 years has military intervention been the only option or have there been opportunities to use soft power that were overlooked or simply rejected?

One of the most intriguing incidents in this respect occurred early on in the fight against the Taliban. Hamid Karzai, who for reasons that I will explain below was most certainly no friend of the Taliban publicly offered to ‘forgive’ Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban if he would renounce terrorism and live peacefully in Afghanistan.

As a possible solution this would appear to most Westerners at best meaningless and at worst plain daft or dangerous. This was certainly how US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld treated it, as he immediately got on the satellite phone to Karzai and forced him to retract it. However, had the British Foreign Office had anyone with an in depth knowledge of the culture of Afghanistan,) particularly that of the Pushtuns from which the Taliban were predominantly drawn, they might have advocated a more cautious approach to what Karzai was doing. I have no direct information as to the number of Diplomats specialising in Pushtu at this time. However, even at the end of the last Labour government there appeared to be a significant lack of linguistic and cultural expertise on Afghanistan, with Rory Stewart MP reporting that of the 300 staff based at the British Embassy in Kabul in 2009 only two were skilled in Dari, which for government administration is far more widely used than Pushtu, with which it shares the status of being the national language. That lack of cultural expertise also of course raises very real questions about whether John Reid genuinely thought that British troops might leave Helmand after three years without a shot being fired, something he later denied. Although if he didn't mean that then what did he mean? It was certainly clear to those of us with personal knowledge of Afghanistan at the time, that deployment to the south would almost certainly result in body bags coming home.

So let me explain the cultural and political background to Karzai’s public offer to ‘forgive’ Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban if he would renounce terrorism:

1. The Pushtun (often mispronounced 'Pathan') tribal code known as Pushtunwali is centred around two cultural poles – hospitality and blood vengeance. One must offer hospitality AND sanctuary to anyone who asks for it. Karzai knew that this made it almost impossible for the Taliban, who were an overwhelmingly Pushtun movement, to accede to US demands made in the months following 9/11 to simply hand over bin Laden who was their guest.

2. Pushtun culture is very much an honour-shame culture. Honour is something that is acquired both by birth and by a lifetime of acting in a way that is seen as culturally honourable, particularly by following the dictates of Pushtunwali. Personal and family honour is probably the single most important thing to a Pushtun, once it is lost, it is lost for good. Honour can be lost in a moment. Betraying a guest to his enemy would for Pushtun be such a heinous crime that it would result in shame for the family who did it for many generations to come. Personal honour for a Pushtun is also about independence. Part of what it means to be a Pushtun is to be a landowner because in that sense he is not in debt to anyone.

3. Pushtun tribal code is based not on an abstract concept of justice in the way that western law is, (it is wrong to speed on an empty motorway because it is breaking ‘the law’),but on a relational concept of justice whereby only the person wronged can decide what happens to the wrongdoer. He can choose whether the wrongdoer is punished or instead choose to ‘forgive’ him – which means not so much ‘release him from an emotional ill feeling’, but decide that he should not be punished. If someone is offered and accepts forgiveness they become indebted to the person who forgave them. This itself would diminish their honour and standing in the community and – crucially – it would be an act of enormous shame to offend against the person who has earlier forgiven them.

I experienced this myself some years ago while living in a Pushtun area when a thief was caught stealing my bicycle. The thief pleaded with me to ‘forgive’ him – meaning ‘please don’t hand me over for punishment’. Knowing he would be badly beaten up by the local ‘police’ I forgave him – although he still suffered the shame of word spreading around the local area that he was a thief – and even more crucially he incurred a lifelong debt to me in terms of social and cultural obligation.

This was actually the cultural nuance of what Karzai was doing when he offered to ‘forgive’ Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. i.e. he was in effect saying ‘Submit, place yourself in debt to me – so that you will never be able to lead a movement again and I will let you live in the land’. It was actually quite a big ask of Mullah Omar – but it was just about possible that in a country that was exhausted after more than two decades of war it might just have worked and brought peace. However, even if Mullah Omar had rejected it, Karzai would have outmanoeuvred him, as Mullah Omar would have lost credibility and Karzai would have potentially gained significant credibility including in the rural areas where support for the Taliban was strongest. In other words, even if Mullah Omar had rejected the ‘offer’ Karzai’s strategy was still a brilliant way of winning hearts of minds including among some of the rural Pushtun who wavered in their support towards the Taliban.

Realistically even if Mullah Omar had accepted Karzai’s offer he had had so many enemies that someone else would undoubtedly tried to exact blood vengeance! – but that is the way of the Pushtuns – blood vengeance is one of the two main pillars of Pushtunwali – the Pushtun tribal code.

It should be noted that the cultural nuances of Karzai’s offer to ‘forgive’ Mullah Omar meant that he was in no sense treating the Taliban as equals, but offering to place Mullah Omar in a wholly subservient relationship as a defeated enemy. This is wholly different from the negotiations with the Taliban that western governments have more recently pressured Karzai to accept, which are at best likely to be seen by the Taliban as ‘negotiating on equal terms’, and when combined with announcements of timetables for the withdrawal of western troops likely to be viewed as placing the Afghan government is a potentially subservient position to them.

However, as I indicated above, Karzai’s offer to forgive Mullah Omar wasn’t given a chance because as soon as Karzai made this ‘offer’ in a radio broadcast – US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld immediately got on the satellite phone to him and insisted that he retract it.

Intriguingly, prior to the 2001 western military intervention in Afghanistan, Karzai had actually had achieved significant success in using the importance of honour and shame in Pushtun culture to outmanoeuvre the Taliban. Prior to 9/11 Karzai’s father who was head of the royal Popalzai clan of the Pushtuns was murdered by the Taliban on the orders of Mullah Omar. This placed enormous social pressure on Karzai to exact blood vengeance.

Hospitality and blood vengeance, the two poles of the Pushtun tribal code are so incredibly important in the culture that they quiet literally affect the lives of virtually every rural Pushtun family, with senior male figures being under huge social pressure to take blood vengeance on a family who sometime in the past generation has killed one of their family. The importance of blood vengeance is well illustrated by Pushtun stories of how the sanctuary and blood vengeance obligations can be reconciled – such as the Pushtun who gave sanctuary to a man who knocked on his gate claiming to be fleeing from his enemies, only to learn an hour later that his ‘guest’ had just murdered the host’s own father. The host therefore entertained his ‘guest’ with full lavish Pushtun hospitality, then in the morning gave him an hour’s start, before setting off himself, catching up with his erstwhile ‘guest’ of the previous night and exacting blood vengeance.

Now I suspect that many readers at this point will be quite rightly thinking It’s all very well talking about cultural solutions, but some of those are pretty repugnant! Absolutely, we must make a moral judgement about cultural values and actions. However, what is interesting about Karzai, who as well as being leader of a Pushtun clan is also a Cambridge graduate and so has experienced both Afghan and western culture, is that he appears to be capable to coming up with cultural solutions that on occasions challenge some of the more morally questionable aspects of Pushtun culture such as blood vengeance.

Hamid Karzai’s response to Mullah Omar ordering the murder of Karzai’s father was to organise an enormous funeral procession of vehicles from his home in Quetta just over the border in Pakistan to Kandahar, which was the centre of Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The cortege was so enormous that everyone knew what Mullah Omar and the Taliban had done and the Taliban were utterly powerless to do anything about it. In effect Karzai created a cultural solution that shamed Mullah Omar and fulfilled his own cultural obligation to redeem family honour without actually exacting blood vengeance, which in any case he was at the time powerless to do against Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban.

Both of these examples, Karzai’s offer to ‘forgive’ Mullah Omar and the huge funeral cortege, point to the possibilities of such cultural solutions existing and the need for Britain’s Foreign Office to evaluate them. It is the need for such analysis that makes detailed cultural and linguistic knowledge of individual countries so incredibly important in the Foreign Office. However, as we have noted, it was precisely this area of the Foreign office training and accumulated expertise that that the last Labour government ran down.

Clearly there will be many occasions when soft power skills alone cannot prevent war. We will always need a foreign policy where the credible threat of hard power backs up soft power options and has on occasions to be used.

Would Karzai’s cultural solution – offering to ‘forgive’ Mullah Omar if he renounced terrorism – have worked? I honestly don’t know, There’s just a chance that in a profoundly war weary country it might, which of course would have given another enormous headache to western governments trying to sell that one to their electorates! However, even if Mullah Omar had refused the ‘offer’, Karzai would have out manoeuvred him and probably made significant gains in winning hearts and minds, which is ultimately only way that the war can be ended.

That certainly does not mean that western military intervention was not needed. I say that because after the 2001 western military intervention in Afghanistan, coalition forces found canisters of uranium at Kandahar airport, suggesting the possibility that a dirty radioactive bomb was being planned. It was the possibility that the Taliban were seeking to acquire nuclear material that convinced me that western military intervention was justified and that together knowledge that groups like al-Qaeda wish to create an Islamist state from which to launch attacks on western counties, continues to convinces me that this is a war that Britain definitely should be fighting.

However, what all of this also points to is that if we are to end the fighting in Afghanistan, we need to be able to understand and evaluate cultural solutions that may be proposed by people like Karzai. It also means that the FCO needs to understand the cultural significance of some of the solutions western powers have advocated – like approaching the Taliban to negotiate with them – which implies a degree of possible submission to them. It also means that we need to recognise that there are other Islamist groups in Afghanistan who share a similar Islamist vision to the Taliban, though not necessarily using quite the same tactics, and this includes some of those who western governments appear to regard as ‘moderates’ as I outlined last week in respect of former President Rabbani who was assassinated last week. Rabbani was in fact one of the founding fathers of Afghan Islamism.

That is why the reforms of the Foreign and Commonwealth office initiated by William Hague on becoming Foreign Secretary, are so very important. These reforms, which Paul Goodman outlined on Conservative Home a few weeks ago, reverse much of the neglect of the Foreign office that happened under Labour including:

1. Significantly increasing the number of diplomats around the world, particularly in the growing world economic powers of India and China but also in Brazil, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines and our presence in Taiwan.

2. A diplomatic excellence initiative which has focused on making the FCO good again at what should be some of its core skills – diplomacy, negotiation, analysis and understanding of language and culture in other countries. Reversing Labour’s neglect of Foreign Office language learning Mr Hague has increased its budget by £1 million a 30% increase, which is no small achievement at a time of budget cuts.

This is something that may not be exciting and headline grabbing in the way that some policy initiatives are, but it is something that the Conservative led government is very clearly getting right. Thank God we have got Hague at the Foreign Office!


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