With the 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops and the next presidential elections drawing closer, the Legatum Institute invited Jean d’Amécourt, French Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011, and author of a new behind the scenes account of diplomacy in Kabul (Diplomate en guerre à Kaboul), to discuss the lessons he learned from his experience on the ground. He was joined by one of his close colleagues at the time, Mark Sedwill, former UK Ambassador and NATO Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan, now Permanent Secretary at the Home Office.

VIDEO: Anne Applebaum interviews Jean d’Amécourt

Both ambassadors spoke of the successes and failures of the Afghan intervention, and focused on several important lessons learned: Mali and Somalia certainly came up in the conversation and Syria was not far from everybody’s mind.

  • The complexity of a multinational operation, and the need to find better ways to manage them. Afghanistan was compared unfavourably, in this light, with the relative ease of the French-led operation in Mali. At the same time, it is worth keeping in mind that the initial operation in Afghanistan also looked like a success. The mistakes came later, after the Taliban had seemingly melted away. 
  • Having a clear vision form the start, sticking to it, and committing sufficient resources. In Afghanistan sufficient resources didn’t arrive until 2009, far too late.
  • Creating a sense of commitment. The withdrawal of international troops in 2014 doesn't mean the international community will "withdraw" completely, but the intentions have not been communicated well to the Afghans.
  • Dealing with the neighbourhood from the beginning. Not enough was done to address the issue of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
  • There is no military solution. The only solution is a negotiated political settlement – with the help of economic development and long-term international commitment. • Inclusiveness. Although including the Taliban leadership in the Bonn Process was probably not politically feasible at the time, more groups could have been included, in particular the support base from which the Taliban drew. Their underrepresentation then and in the first parliamentary elections in 2005 fuelled a sense of exclusion and resentment.
  • Supporting governance, especially local governance, and the rule of law. Economic aid and reconstruction will only anesthetize the problem temporarily without proper governance. Partly because the international community did not understand the importance of creating local government structures, partly because international aid agencies are used to working through the central government, this was not stressed early enough. The failure of governance allowed the Taliban to reinsert themselves in parts of the country.
  • The international community needs to avoid creating parallel governance structures, disabling the state. The Afghan state was overly reliant on outside aid for too long and there was no forcing mechanism for the Afghan government to take responsibility for governance. In certain areas, if an Afghan wanted security they went to see ISAF, if they wanted money they went to the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), but there was no reason to go to the Afghan government.
  • Indigenous forces – army and police – should have been built up much faster. Foreign forces are intrusive and friction only increases with time. Indigenous forces know the terrain and are sensitive to local culture. They are also a visible sign of the presence of the central state and, thus, essential for building trust in the state.
  • International forces need time in the country and contact with the local population. Often, troops were assigned to Afghanistan for only four to six months, too short a period to understand the country. At the same time, confining troops to fortified camps created a real barrier with the population.

Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute, moderated the conversation between the French and British ambassadors as well as the Q&A session that followed. Guests included a wide-range of Afghan specialists, UK government officials and London-based diplomats, as well as NGO representatives, journalists and writers.

The “Lessons from Afghanistan” discussion was part of the “Transitions Forum”, a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.