Joe MacDonald talks to the British Ambassador to Afghanistan about his career as an envoy Six years after the US and Britain began the aerial bombing campaign against the Taliban, Afghanistan remains unstable, violent, and desperately poor. Its people have a life expectancy of 46 and its basket case economy depends on the heroin trade, with over half of its GDP coming from drugs. The government of President Hamid Karzai, who won presidential elections three years ago, has little control beyond the capital Kabul. In the badlands bordering Pakistan, the resurgent Taliban are establishing control and launching attacks on Nato forces – 82 British soldiers have died since operations began in 2001, all but four of them within the last two years.
So all things considered, British Ambassador to Afghanistan would seem to be a job demanding in equal parts optimism and realism. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, speaking to Cherwell soon after his arrival in Kabul on the 15th of May, does not mince his words: “The lack of development is really quite shocking. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world – we need to do all we can to help Afghanistan.”
His posting comes as part of the upgrade of the British diplomatic effort: soon the embassy will be one of the largest in the world. Day to day, the job of staff is to understand Afghanistan and to integrate British government efforts. Also on the in-tray are daily engagements with the Afghan government and coordination with the rest of the international community, be it foreign embassies, the UN, NATO, or the EU.
With security the foremost concern in Afghanistan, working closely with the military is also a big part of Sir Sherard’s role (“it brings out the sad tank-spotter in me”, he jokes on his blog). Security is just one part of the state-building effort. “The British military understand better than anyone what we call the comprehensive approach to building stability,” he says. Military force can only be one element in “a much wider approach” to economic development and establishing the rule of law.
Yet reconstruction efforts remain seriously hampered by the government’s lack of authority and the widespread violence ensuing. Sir Sherard insists that the insurgency is being pushed back, but points to the complexity of the situation. Afghanistan’s recent history makes bleak reading. After three decades of war and suffering under the communists, the warlords and the Taliban, the country was hardly ripe for democratisation. It was only with the rise to prominence of the hardline Islamist movement that any stability was achieved in the country.
Few other nations recognised the Taliban regime as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, oppressive policies ensuring their pariah status. Minority ethnic groups such as the Hazara were persecuted and massacred. Islamic punishments such as stoning and amputation were introduced and religious minorities were forced to wear identification tags. Women were banned from work and education – one edict demanded that windows in Kabul be blacked out so that housebound women would not be visible to passers by. Even shaving was banned.
This legacy explains why state-building and democratisation are such huge challenges. “As a diplomat, it’s essential to learn the language and engage in the culture. My great regret in coming here is that although I’ve been studying Pushtun in London I haven’t had the time to master it.” The lessons will continue in Afghanistan, he says, although since his new teacher speaks no English he will be learning Pushtun through the medium of French.
A fluent Arabic speaker, Sir Sherard has specialised in the Middle East for much of his diplomatic career. After a First in Greats at Hertford in the mid-70s, he took the Foreign Office entrance exam and to his “amazement” was offered a job. His first year saw him based in London as desk officer for Ireland. Coincidentally a friend from Balliol had just entered the much smaller Irish diplomatic service – his first position was desk officer for Africa and Asia.
This was followed by language training in Lebanon, although he had to finish his studies in London: along with other British nationals he was evacuated as the tail-end of the civil war saw Syrian forces firing Katoosha rockets over the Foreign Office school where he studied. He was one of the last graduates of the famous Middle East Centre for Arab Studies, which Egypt’s President Nasser called the “British spy school”.
Later he became private secretary to the late Robin Cook. The notoriously prickly foreign secretary hated to be bothered by trivia before important meetings, Sir Sherard recalls. At one European conference news of Cherie Blair’s pregnancy had just come through, but he decided it would be best not to mention it in his morning briefing to a grumpy-looking Cook. Unfortunately, as soon as Cook entered the conference chamber, Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern asked him to give the prime minister his congratulations on the “wonderful news”. A baffled Cook assumed that Ahern must have been talking about some sudden breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process. Unimpressed by Ahern’s frivolous tone, he replied, “I will pass on your congratulations, but you do realise this has taken Tony three years of hard work.”
One of the privileges to come with being the minister’s private secretary was being able to indicate, within reason, what job he wanted next. Having learnt Arabic and served in Cairo, Sir Sherard wanted to see the other side of the Middle East conflict. After immersion training in Hebrew, which he picked up by living with an Israeli family in Hendon, he became Britain’s ambassador to Israel, at the centre of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Neither side is gaining from the situation. Israel’s true friends should help bring about a settlement, which means engagement with both sides.” The answer – a two state solution – has been known since 1937, Sir Sherard says. First the Arabs rejected it, and now in recent years Israeli worries mean that it has been delayed again. His time as ambassador taught him much about the “sense of insecurity” amongst Israelis. “The general worry that Israel will be pushed back into the sea – whether or not one thinks this is justified, considering Israel’s military power and its support from America – is a reality of Israeli politics that needs to be recognised.”
Relations between Arabs and Jews have not always been so bleak. “Before the creation of Israel there were huge Jewish communities across the Middle East in Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, and elsewhere. A sad consequence is that these communities have disappeared. The connection between the Jewish people and the wider Middle East has been lost.”
His stint in Israel was followed in 2003 by a posting as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Moving an ambassador from Tel Aviv to Riyadh proved a controversial decision. “It was never done before, and may never be done again,” he explains, admitting that he was initially treated with “some suspicion” in the Saudi capital. There were also awkward moments where, due to the similarity of Hebrew and Arabic, he accidentally used Hebrew words instead of Arabic ones. However, he soon struck up a close relationship with his Saudi colleagues, who affectionately nicknamed him ‘Abu Henry’ after his eldest son.
Because of the big British commercial and security interest in Saudi Arabia, the embassy has to deal with “a huge range of activity” – much of it based on meeting the needs of British expats. Fear of al-Qaida led to the number of British nationals in the country falling from 30,000 to 20,000 during one year of Sir Sherard’s tenure. Yet he remains cautiously upbeat about its future: “A key point to remember is that it’s the only country in the Arab world that was never properly colonised, which is a source of pride, but also a burden in the sense that the interior population is very religious, devout, and conservative. The reality for a ruler who wants to bring reform, like King Abdullah, is that he must take the population with him. He can’t just impose his will without risking serious disorder.”
For the scores of Oxford students mulling a career in foreign affairs, he advises that the most important qualities are adaptability and an open mind, “coupled with a strong sense of judgement… and a sense of humour”. He insists that the Foreign Office is not the preserve of white males with double firsts from Oxbridge, pointing out that almost half of the staff in the Saudi Arabia embassy are female. “You have to be prepared for tough conditions. Our job is to understand what makes foreign countries tick. It’s not just understanding for its own sake. The role of the diplomat is more important than ever. Countries have more to do with each other than ever before, and a country like Britain – which engages in the world – needs to understand to influence in Britain’s interest and the international interest.” Again, optimism and realism.