Britain's top diplomat in Kabul believes events in Afghanistan are deteriorating so rapidly that it may take an "acceptable dictator" to rescue the country, according to a leaked French diplomatic cable.
The publication of the classified cable by a French newspaper also cast doubt on the conventional wisdom in Washington—echoed by Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as U.S. commanders—that more U.S. and NATO troops can contain the alarming Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.
Just this week, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that he needed additional troops "as quickly as possible" to cope with the increasing violence. "We're in a very tough fight," McKiernan said. "The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility." In an unusually blunt assessment, McKiernan added: "I'm not even looking at an exit strategy."
Not everyone shares this prescription. Though he agrees that the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, recently warned a senior French diplomat that the growing number of U.S. and NATO troops in the country is only making things worse. "The reinforcement of military means ... could be having perverse results," Cowper-Coles and his top deputy told France's deputy ambassador to Afghanistan at a meeting Sept. 1, according to the leaked French cable. One unintended consequence of recent military reinforcements in Afghanistan: the number of "targets" for insurgent attacks has "multiplied," the British diplomat reportedly argued.
The secret French telegram, dated Sept. 2, details an alleged conversation between France's deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, Jean-Francois Fitou; Cowper-Coles, one of Britain's most esteemed professional diplomats; and Cowper-Coles's deputy, Andrew Patrick. The Paris weekly that obtained the document, Le Canard Enchainé , has a long history of publishing government leaks. In the past it has been the target of secret anti-leak investigations by the French government.
In the cable, the British diplomats describe the current situation in Afghanistan as "bad ... Security is worsening, but so is corruption and the government has lost all credibility." They also raise questions about the public statements made by American and other Western officials, who have tried to put a positive face on the Afghan conflict.
The British diplomats are quoted as saying that Islamic insurgents continue to make life "more and more difficult" throughout the country, "including in the capital city ... The presence, particularly military, of the [U.S.-led] coalition is a part of the problem, not of the solution." In another passage, the diplomats argue that "Foreign troops are assuring the survival of a regime which, without [the troops' presence], would rapidly fall apart." The diplomats are quoted as concluding that it would be better if Afghanistan were "governed by an acceptable dictator" for the next five to 10 years. "This is the only realistic outlook ... and we must prepare public opinion [in our home countries] to accept it."
According to Le Canard's story, the message goes on to quote the British officials telling their French counterpart that "We can only support the United States in Afghanistan, but we must tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one."
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington said his government never comments on diplomatic communications. British officials have not challenged the authenticity of the cable but say that it seriously misrepresents the views of the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Britain's Foreign Office and Cowper-Coles.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that the United States shares Cowper-Coles's alleged concerns about the resurgent Taliban and Afghan corruption, but said Washington disagrees with the "hopeless" tone of the British assessment depicted in the cable. From Washington's point of view, the official said, Cowper-Coles's fears about the future are "overly pessimistic."