Just the man to bang heads together in Kabul

Dear Richard, [Hoolbrooke]

I'm glad that President Obama chose you as his special envoy in Afghanistan. For I know that you are passionate about the country and have all the skills, experience and muscle to turn things round before it is too late.

It's not going to be easy, of course. But you know that. The talk here is of a troop surge with the new President asking Europe for more troops and to share more of the fighting. Quite right. We are trying to win in Afghanistan with one twenty-fifth of the troops and one fiftieth of the aid per head than in Bosnia. And, as you know, Afghanistan is much more difficult. If we are serious about avoiding defeat, it's time to get serious about raising our game. The fact that some Nato members won't allow their troops to fight undermines Nato, just when we may need it most - and not just in Afghanistan.

So more troops, more aid and more risk-sharing, is necessary - but not sufficient.

Some think that, in Iraq it was the surge that turned it round. But, as you know, there was more to it than that. The new politics in Iraq was as important as the extra soldiers. That's what's missing in Afghanistan. When it comes to post-conflict reconstruction, the soldiers' job is not to chase the enemy, but to create a secure space in which the politicians can rebuild a peace that has the support of the people.

It's not the military battle we are losing - it's the political one. I see your boss, Hillary Clinton, recently pointed the finger at corruption and the Karzai Government. She is right, of course. But the real problem is not President Karzai, it's us. The international community has failed to get its act together on a clear plan that we pursue through unity and speaking with a single voice. The British think Afghanistan is Helmand, the Canadians think it's Kandahar, the Dutch think it's Uruzgan, the Germans think it's the Panjshir valley and the US thinks it's chasing Osama bin Laden.

Everyone sees Afghanistan through their own national prism. Far too much aid comes with a metaphorical national barcode to ensure that national money is spent, often through national profit-making companies, on their own national projects, rather than through the Afghan Government on our jointly agreed priorities (here it's USAID that is most guilty).

And so, instead of unity, poor President Karzai gets confusion from his international partners and conflicting advice (sometimes instructions) from every ambassador he meets. If we can't get our act together, how can we expect him to? This is a sure way to defeat. It also means that our young soldiers are winning battles, often at considerable cost, while their political masters are wasting their sacrifices by failing to get their act together to win the peace. That's the real scandal of Afghanistan. Someone needs to bash heads together out there and if anyone can, you can.

We need a clear plan and some ruthless priorities. When I was going to Afghanistan in 2008 they told me we had 15 priorities. But if you have 15 priorities, you have none. You will decide your own priorities, no doubt. I set three; human security (including things such as jobs and electricity and water); governance (but working with the grain of Afghanistan's tribal structures, not trying to enforce a Western-model centralised Government from Kabul) and the rule of law, without which we cannot tackle the corruption eating at the heart of the Karzai Government or restore respect for Kabul's laws, rather than those of the Taleban.

Having got a plan, we need a policy. Here the US Secretary for Defence, Robert Gates, had it exactly right when he said “Afghanisation” is our task and our ticket out. The Afghan National Army is getting better and better. But the police are not and you will need to change that.

Mr Gates was also right when he said that we have to lower our expectations in Afghanistan. Trying to create a Western-style government with gender-aware citizens is setting ourselves up for failure. We may have to be satisfied for a bit with simply keeping al-Qaeda out and preventing the Taleban taking over.

You will have to decide, too, whether to talk to the Taleban. In the end it will probably be necessary, provided they will put aside the gun in favour of the ballot box. But they are in no mood for talking now, because they think they are winning. The first step is get them on the back foot, militarily - which is where the surge is so important. They must be convinced we have the force, the will and the staying power to beat them, before they will come to the table.

Finally, we have forgotten a truth that you yourself taught us when you drafted the Dayton Agreement for Bosnia; you can't build peace in a country without the help of the neighbours. We need a Dayton for Afghanistan, too, that secures the country's borders and enables the neighbours to play a role. This includes Iran, of course. But I don't think Tehran wants a vacuum of chaos and conflict on its borders. And getting Iran engaged could pave the way for Islamic countries, rather than Western ones, to help Pakistan to regain control of its lawless borders where al-Qaeda and the Taleban have their sanctuaries. Like Dayton, we would need international guarantors for such a treaty. Here I think China would play a part, for it has its own reasons for fearing Islamic jihadists. Maybe this could even open the way for a broader US/China strategic relationship that would benefit us all as the world moves deeper and deeper into instability.

Speaking of the Chinese, they have an old curse: “May you live in interesting times.” You're just about to find the truth of that. Best of luck !


PS. Jane says it's great you are involved in Afghanistan. What she really means is she's glad I'm not!

Paddy Ashdown. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon was the international community's High Representative in Bosnia.