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Former Afghan envoy hits at military advice

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Senior military officers consistently offered ministers “misleadingly optimistic” advice about progress in Afghanistan that “distorted understanding of the problem”, according to Britain’s former envoy to the region.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, a former ambassador to Kabul and outgoing special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the “military machine” brooked no dissent and dismissed critics for being “defeatist”.

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The criticisms lay bare the deep disagreements in Whitehall over strategy in Afghanistan and the resentment over military misjudgments made in the deployment to Helmand province.

“I have a number of practical suggestions. It is a question of political and civilian officers having the confidence to question some of the very optimistic military advice they get,” Sir Sherard told the committee.

“I saw over my three and a half years papers that went to the ministers which were misleadingly optimistic and officials or ministers that questioned them were accused of being defeatist.”

He warned that there would be no “military solution” to Afghanistan and that military strategy had made an inevitable “political settlement” with the Taliban harder to achieve. The “tragedy” of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan had been the inability to mix military pressure with a viable political reconciliation process.

“We have got, on both sides of the Atlantic, extremely capable and extremely enthusiastic and unquenchably optimistic military machines, who have adopted a can-do attitude and driven forward,” he said. “This has distorted the understanding of the problem.”

Sir Sherard backed the idea of a 2015 deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops set by David Cameron. But he said Britain’s engagement with Afghanistan would need to last much longer, to support a military training programme and a “50-year” aid effort. “I support the idea of deadlines,” he said. “I think the Taliban can read the politics in the western …countries as well as anyone. They are perfectly aware that the next British general election will be in 2015.”

“It is a risk and it needs to be accompanied by a vigorous political strategy – strike with one hand and offer a political process with the other,” he said. For this reason, Sir Sherard advised against a rapid military withdrawal next year: “If we were to leave precipitately, there would be chaos and civil war”.

Sir Sherard served as ambassador to Kabul for two years before being appointed as the foreign secretary’s special representative to the region in 2009. He has not been replaced by a full time representative.

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