Almost exactly four years ago, back in 2007, I wondered about the sudden appointment of William Wood, at that time the ambassador to Colombia, to the embassy in Kabul. It seemed at the time that President Bush was tapping Wood’s experience in running an embassy during a massive counternarcotics effort, and trying to import America’s experience in Colombia into Afghanistan. And that’s largely what happened over the next several years—with precisely the same effect on narcotics cultivation and trafficking (that is, little to none).
Now comes news that NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill—yes, the same Mark Sedwill who said Kabul is better for children than New York or London then said the proliferation of IEDs in the country is especially dangerous for those very same children—is out. Replacing him is Simon Gass, Britain’s ambassador to Iran. “Ambassador Gass is a highly qualified diplomat who will bring a regional perspective to this important post,” Rasmussen said. “He knows how important the civilian and political aspects of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan are, as Afghans start taking the lead for their own security in the first half of this year.”
Let’s apply the William Wood principle. There has been a crescendo lately of accusations amongst ISAF and Afghan government officials that Iran is somehow funding the Taliban. The public evidence to support this charge is, at best, rather tenuous when it’s concrete. More often, the case relies on “confessions” made under bizarre circumstances that consist of little more than some sort of militant activity happening to take place inside Iran.
That doesn’t mean Iran isn’t involved in some way in the insurgency in Afghanistan—it just means that the evidence anyone has been willing to publicize so far is really thin. So thin, in fact, that it’s difficult to believe any Iranians who support the Taliban are doing so as a part of an official Iranian government policy; rather, it is entirely possible and believable that some Iranian figures are doing so because they like poking the U.S. in the eye. Think of it like the Iran-Contra affair, but in reverse.
Now, whether there is symbolism in NATO picking Britain’s man in Tehran to take over duties in Kabul is not clear at all. Knowing how NATO works—and the FCO—it could just as easily be coincidental, literally what Rasmussen says it is. But I have my doubts.