A split has emerged between London and Washington over the best way forward in Afghanistan. Over the last week, British diplomats and military commanders have expressed growing doubts about the success of the current NATO strategy. Faced with an imminent change in leadership in the White House and an increasingly deadly stalemate in Afghanistan, London is pushing hard for a political outcome to ensure NATO’s survival and enable it to retool for an evolving strategic landscape in Europe.
The U.S. and UK are often in lockstep on questions of foreign and security policy, particularly within the Alliance, and both are deeply committed to the mission of stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan. It is therefore quite surprising that in recent weeks, three important news stories have emerged portraying a growing split between Washington and London over future policy towards Afghanistan.
Last week, The Guardian‘s Jason Burke reported that Britain is supporting a wide-ranging series of Saudi-sponsored negotiations with the Taliban to produce a lasting peace settlement in Afghanistan. Although Britain’s attempts to split the ‘hard-core’ Taliban from less dedicated militants have failed before, this most recent effort is far more comprehensive. First, it comes on the heels of President Karzai’s statement that he would welcome the opportunity to speak directly with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Second, these negotiations involve Saudi Arabia, a crucial player in the Islamic world whose long-standing ties to both the Taliban and the West make Riyadh a credible interlocutor.
Second, in an embarrassing moment for the Foreign Office, a French diplomat leaked a memo quoting the British Ambassador to Afghanistan as having said the US strategy in Afghanistan is “destined to fail,” that foreign troops are “part of the problem, not the solution,” and that Afghanistan might best be governed by an “acceptable dictator.” In his cable, Ambassador Cowper-Coles also criticized the US presidential candidates for promising further troops increases for Afghanistan.
Finally, just days ago the Commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, warned that the British public must not expect a “decisive military victory’ in Afghanistan. Rather, the goal should be to “reduce the violence to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”
Why is Britain suddenly so insistent that the US and the Alliance begin thinking about a political solution in Afghanistan? After all, Britain has tried its hands at negotiations before in its area of responsibility in Afghanistan and has bribed, cajoled and divided competing tribes for centuries in its foreign interventions. What is behind London’s newfound assertiveness?
First, American presidential politics have given London the perfect opportunity to call for a new approach. George W. Bush is an unusually unpopular and impotent lame duck, so now is an ideal time for London to push back without overly upsetting the ‘special relationship.’ Additionally, Great Britain cannot help but notice that Bush’s possible replacements have both pledged further troop increases in Afghanistan, promising to double down America’s commitment seven years into the war. Considering the British public’s lack of enthusiasm for further troop increases, now is an opportune time for London to try to influence the candidates before they take office and begin offering faits accomplis to the Allies.
Second, like many of the other allies, including the United States, Britain’s army is weary after years of continuous long-distance deployment and combat. The UK’s army has loyally fought in tough battles alongside the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and its military is approaching the breaking point. Recent months have shown no respite. In the last six months in the Helmand province, 32 British soldiers have been killed and 170 wounded. British commanders and defense officials believe that seven years into the war, the health of the British army requires an exit strategy for Afghanistan, not a ‘double or nothing’ troop surge.
Finally, the British are not only concerned about the future state of their own military but also the fate of the NATO alliance. Since 1949, the Brits have seen NATO as the cornerstone of their security policy. Afghanistan has put the Alliance under tremendous strain as Europe’s military weakness and sagging political will have embarrassed the proud Alliance.
As if this was not bad enough, Russia’s war with Georgia this summer has altered Europe’s strategic landscape and called into question the credibility of NATO’s Article V guarantee after years of transformation for ‘expeditionary missions.’ British strategists cannot like what they see happening to their beloved NATO. A messy political arrangement with the Taliban would be far from ideal, but it would allow the Alliance to escape a seemingly endless conflict and work on bolstering its credibility as a guarantor of European security.
Unfortunately for London, Washington is unlikely to accept a negotiated settlement at this point in time. With the Taliban ascendant, the U.S. will want the opportunity to try to turn the tide back in Afghanistan before considering any sort of political settlement with the Taliban.
Despite the recent bad news, there are reasons to believe that the security situation will improve in the medium term. General David Petraeus, the new commander of CENTCOM, will have the opportunity to apply his counterinsurgency experience to Afghanistan. Furthermore, Pakistan has assumed a more aggressive posture in its fight against militants in the FATA, which is a positive development for Afghanistan.
Britain does not want a nasty, public feud with Washington over Afghanistan’s future, but it does want to make sure its voice is heard. Britain’s capability, loyalty, and regional expertise will give it outsized influence in Washington’s formulation of future policy towards Afghanistan. London has chosen the perfect moment to push for a new approach in Afghanistan. It will be many months before we know if they have succeeded.
Jeff Lightfoot is an assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s international security program.