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Miliband Presses Political Strategy for Afghans, Insurgency

July 28, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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British Foreign Secretary David Miliband tells Gwen Ifill that the Afghan war requires more of a political solution to win, in addition to a military one.
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GWEN IFILL: And we are joined now by Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Thank you for joining us.

DAVID MILIBAND: It’s good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: If it is true — and it is, of course — that July was the bloodiest month for British forces in Afghanistan in seven years, what do you say to the British people who clearly are losing their enthusiasm for this war?

DAVID MILIBAND: We say that this mission is in Britain’s national security interest. After all, nearly three-quarters of the terrorist plots that have been either taken place or foiled against the U.K. have their links into the badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And our clear mission there is to help Afghans provide the security to defend their own country. At the moment, they can’t do that on their own. That’s why British and other coalition forces are there.

And I think that we also have to show British people, but also Americans and others around the world, that there is a political strategy allied to the military strategy that’s taking place in the way that your correspondent has described.

GWEN IFILL: I want you to talk about that some more, because that was the whole topic of your speech yesterday at NATO. When you say “political strategy,” that sounds different to American ears. That sounds like if there’s horse trading going on. When you say — but you mean it differently.

DAVID MILIBAND: I mean three things above all, and they go to the heart of how we fight an insurgency. A counterinsurgency is not prosecuted in the way that a conventional war is prosecuted.

We need a political strategy on three fronts, first for the Afghan population whose tacit support can give cover to an insurgency. It can mean people not informing on the placing of improvised explosive devices. So we need a political strategy for the Afghan population about governance and development.

Second, we need a political strategy for the insurgency, because most of the people who are fighting against British and American and other forces are not ideologues committed to the global jihad. Some are; their leaders are. But most of the so-called Taliban insurgency are actually people who are rented or in fear of their lives. We need to make sure that they can come within the Afghan constitution.

And thirdly…

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like — I’m sorry. Go ahead.

DAVID MILIBAND: … sorry, thirdly, we just need to understand that Afghanistan has been the chessboard for other countries for a very long time, especially its neighbors, and we need a political strategy for the neighbors of Afghanistan, above all Pakistan, if we are to stabilize the country, which after all was the incubator of terrorism that struck with such deadly effect in the United States in September 2001.

Shifting approaches

David Miliband
British Foreign Secretary
We're trying to ensure that the Afghan government -- the legitimate and, on August the 20th, elected Afghan government -- is able to defend its own country.

GWEN IFILL: You make those three points, and it sounds like you're talking to at least three different audiences. You're talking to allies, you're talking to Afghans, and you're talking to other people who have a vested interest in this. Am I correct? When you talk about shifting to a political approach and away from a military approach, that's where you're headed?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think the two go together. The bravery and the commitment not just of British forces, but Americans, too, in very large numbers, and from 40 other nations is extraordinary and is a vital part of this strategy.

But we all know that in the end there is no long-term military, quote, unquote, "solution." The military can create the space for sustainable politics and sustainable governance, because we are not trying to create a colony in Afghanistan. We're trying to ensure that the Afghan government -- the legitimate and, on August the 20th, elected Afghan government -- is able to defend its own country.

GWEN IFILL: Is that also your way of saying that, when the U.S. asks for Britain to devote 2,000 more troops to this effort, that that is unlikely to happen?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I've read that in the newspapers, but not in the cabinet papers that have come towards us. We've increased our troop numbers from 3,000 to 5,000, then to 7,000, and now to 9,000. So Britain is the second-largest contributor of troops and the second-largest contributor of development aid, because we think the two have to go together.

GWEN IFILL: Is that going to continue to grow, I guess, is the question?

DAVID MILIBAND: The...

GWEN IFILL: The number of troops?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that depends on the situation on the ground and the burden-sharing among the allies, because this is a 42-country effort. It's important that all countries play their appropriate part. Britain has increased its numbers. And we are guided by the situation on the ground, the assets that we have at our disposal, and the fair sharing of the burden.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things you talk about when you mention the situation on the ground in the speech was that you would like to encourage defections among people, Taliban sympathizers, Taliban activists, I suppose, and get them to switch sides. How would you do that?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that, in simple terms, the incentive for them for switching has got to be greater than the threat to them for staying, and they face a very severe threat, because there is now severe military action against the insurgency on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

And people who switch need to know that they're going to be protected if they do so, that there will be legitimate Afghan authority with international support if they do so, and that there will be a livelihood for them, because the tragedy is that some of the insurgents are paid $10 a day by the Taliban, which is more than the pay of the local police force.

We've got to understand, this is about individuals thinking who's going to win, and they've got to know that they'll be secure on our side.

GWEN IFILL: Are you confident that Hamid Karzai is on board with this idea or that the central government itself in Afghanistan is strong enough to pull some of this off?

Supporting elected Afghan officials

David Miliband
British Foreign Secretary
I think that President Karzai, who we've talked to on a number of occasions, has outlined a very clear vision for his country, and we have to help him make sure that he's able to put it into practice.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, that's a really important question. President Karzai was elected, and it's important that we support legitimate elected government in Afghanistan.

But Afghanistan is not like the U.S. or the U.K. It's a society that's 174th in the world development index, one of the poorest countries in the world, with no long-term history of centralized government of the sort that you or I might recognize.

I think that President Karzai, who we've talked to on a number of occasions, has outlined a very clear vision for his country, and we have to help him make sure that he's able to put it into practice. Critically, that means ensuring that locally, in different parts of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, there are clean, non-corrupt governors able to lead change in those provinces.

GWEN IFILL: He seems to be more focused on this idea of civilian casualties and what allied forces can do to reduce that. Are you with him on that?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, that's important. Every time an Afghan civilian is killed by our forces rather than by the Taliban, that obviously is a major loss to all of us.

I think we've got to remember though that the number of civilian casualties is far outweighed by the number who've been killed by the Taliban, but nonetheless it's a real issue.

General McChrystal, the newly appointed commander of the international force there, has made clear his determination to minimize this, because the political strategy for the Afghan people depends on us showing them that we're on their side.

GWEN IFILL: Is this all bound up with -- with the outcome of these August 20th elections, which are coming up very quickly?

DAVID MILIBAND: They're very important. I mean, credible government is critical for the political and military drive forward in Afghanistan. Extra troops are there to help guard the 7,000 polling stations. Large numbers of Afghans have registered. In 2004, their commitment to vote was a real vote of confidence in their own future, and it's vital that they have the security that allows them to vote again.

And, remember, there are 42 candidates in this presidential election in the first round. And they need to have a proper debate and a proper choice to see the future ahead of them. But we need credible government in Kabul.

GWEN IFILL: Do you believe that you and General McChrystal and the U.S. administration are in lockstep on this approach, this shift away from military emphasis to a political emphasis?

DAVID MILIBAND: Yes, I do. And I do challenge the idea that there's a shift. What there is, is an explanation of a comprehensive approach.

President Obama has been absolutely clear about this. Prime Minister Brown in Britain has been absolutely clear about this. Military on its own won't do it. It's got to be military, plus politics, plus economic and social development. That is a comprehensive approach.

And it has to be done in Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan, because we should know. We were involved in drawing this border 100 years ago, this 2,600-kilometer border, and it's a very porous border. And the badlands stretch across the Afghan-Pakistan border.

And we need a more stable Pakistan to get a more stable Afghanistan. And that's why I really applaud what President Obama and Secretary Clinton are doing in terms of rebalancing the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, as well.

GWEN IFILL: British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, thank you for joining us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you very much.