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3 Questions: David Miliband on Afghanistan’s future

Before delivering the Compton Lecture, Britain’s foreign secretary sat down with MIT News to discuss the state of the war in Afghanistan

As U.S.-led forces step up their military efforts in Afghanistan, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has begun urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government to push for a peace settlement with Taliban insurgents. Before delivering the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture on Wednesday, Miliband — who has an MA in political science from MIT — sat down with MIT News to discuss Afghanistan.

Q. You’re here to help try to spur a peace process forward in Afghanistan. You’ve met Hamid Karzai, you were at his inauguration along with other Western officials in November. At this time, does he have the legitimacy and stature to be central to a peace process and stable government?

A. Well, he’s the elected leader of Afghanistan, the elected president of Afghanistan. There were very serious allegation of fraud in respect to his election, but I don’t think many people doubt that he got more votes than his opponent, even though he didn’t get the 50 percent absolute majority in the first round. A recent poll by the BBC suggests he has quite a lot of support from the Afghan people, who believe him to be their elected president, legitimately elected president. So I think the answer to that has got to be, ‘Yes.’ He is the president of the country, and he has huge responsibilities. And we have to work with him.

Q. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was just in Kabul, and said about possible negotiations, “The timing of this, really I think, in many respects depends on the conditions on the ground in terms of when people, particularly the more senior [Taliban] commanders, realize that the odds against their success are no longer in their favor.” To what extent is military success a precondition of diplomatic success, or to what extent, and for what reasons, can they co-exist at the same time?

A. Well, I think that military and civilian effort can together create the conditions for the political process. And the military effort now is significant, the philosophy is right, to protect the population, the numbers are right, in terms of the surge, the effort from the Pakistanis is right, in terms of what they’re doing on the Pakistan side of the border. So that means that it is the right time to have the sort of political drive that’s going to bring this insurgency to an end.

Q. Over the last several weeks we’ve seen concerted military action [by American and British forces] in Marjah. But there have been some temporary military successes in the Helmand Province before, which displaced Taliban leaders, who were then able to come back later. So what might make this time different?  

A. Afghan capacity: capacity on security, through the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police; capacity in governance, through the support of provincial and district governments; and capacity for politics to emerge that brings disaffected Pashtuns who are not part of global jihad into the political process. That’s the difference. In the end, the population are the best protection against the insurgency. To make that possible, we’ve got to protect the population.

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