Tea Leaves

by Joshua Foust on 2/9/2011 · 3 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments }

RScott February 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm

But it does make a bit more sense to appoint someone with some background in the region than one who did not, like Wood. Wood was apparently appointed to perhaps carry out an already decided policy of aerial spraying of poppy crops as a form of eradication, which did not work in Columbia. But if it did not work in Columbia, maybe it will in Afghanistan.? It did put a man in place who would assure everyone that herbicides are not harmful to people.? Even in areas where the people and farm animals all drank primarily from the open ditches and drains of the irrigation system where the poppies grew (Helmand). In the end, the Afghans refused to allow the spraying.
From the Iranian perspective, cover all bases. At the time of the Taliban government, give support to the Shia Hazaras in the north, support small development projects in the Pashtun south and complain about the Taliban not living up to the Helmand water treaty.

Ian February 9, 2011 at 7:27 pm

If anything, this just goes to show where people are willing to be posted just to stop being the British ambassador to Iran.

But, seriously, one could hope that this appointment means that someone believes Iran will eventually have to be part of a political solution in Afghanistan. Perhaps having someone with first-hand diplomatic experience in Tehran will balance the natural ISAF tendency to blame every imported RPG on Ahmadinejad and make for a more rational policy. One could hope…

Steve Magribi February 9, 2011 at 9:25 pm

This swap out is pretty simple to analyze..

Sedwill cannot stand Petraeus.
Petraeus cannot stand Sedwill.
Petraeus ignores everything Sedwill says.
Sedwill ignores everything Petreaus says.
Sedwill blames Petreaus for the overall failure of the mission.
Petreaus is looking for someone else to blame.
Rodriguez is next because he is not real on top of things.

The new guy will be in and out within a year if he knows what is
good for him as the blame game is getting to be very accelerated at this time.

Heard this on a Grapevine…in Arghandeb…

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