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U.S.-UK: A Difficult Duet in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 21, 2010

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U.S. President Barack Obama and David Cameron, Britain's newly minted prime minister, met July 20 to discuss the war in Afghanistan, among other issues. Behind the talk of the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States, says CFR Europe expert Charles Kupchan, both leaders "find themselves in quite similar predicaments" in Afghanistan, a war increasingly unpopular in both countries, especially since both face growing national debt. Both Obama and Cameron want to show a commitment to "stay put for now," says Kupchan, but want to demonstrate that they're anticipating a time when responsibilities will be handed over to the Afghans themselves. Kupchan says that the European economic crisis has led Cameron to temper the usual Conservative disdain of Europe because the crisis has linked Britain and the continent more closely. He thinks the controversy over the release last year of the convicted Lockerbie bomber will continue because of BP's role in lobbying for economic deals with Libya.

President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron held a very friendly press conference after their talks. What is the status of U.S.-UK special relationship these days?

Both Obama and Cameron went out of their way to demonstrate a particularly strong bond, both personally and between the United States and Great Britain. In some ways, they were revealing that there are doubts about just how special the "special relationship" is. They were compensating by trying to bolster confidence [to] say, "Yes, the U.S.-UK special tie is alive and well." Those doubts stem from the reality that the world has changed a lot since this special relationship was born, that the United States is no longer focused on European security as its paramount strategic concern, that the British loom less large in America's strategic map than they used to, and that as a consequence, the degree to which the two countries share some unique role in the world has diminished. There will always be something to the U.S.-UK relationship, that's unique, and that stems from history. It stems from a common ancestry, a common culture. It's safe to say that the U.S. and the UK generally end up on the same page, at least more than any two other countries. So Great Britain is still the number one go-to partner for the United States.

Both Cameron and Obama seemed to agree on the general policy of eventually getting out of Afghanistan, and they both praised the one-day conference in Kabul in which the Afghan government pledged to take over local security by the year 2014. Afghanistan doesn't seem to be as much of an irritant in relations as I thought it might be.

The most significant differences right now within the coalition and between the coalition and the Afghani government is: With whom does one reconcile? Is it lower-rank-and-file Taliban? Is it Taliban leaders? Are there are any groups that are beyond the pale? What are the preconditions for bringing people in from the cold?

It's not an irritant in part because Obama and Cameron find themselves in quite similar predicaments. And that is that the war is growing increasingly unpopular domestically. That puts Obama and Cameron in a position in which they want to demonstrate progress, demonstrate a commitment to stay put for now, but also indicate that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and talk about the time in which responsibility will be handed off to the Afghanis themselves. Britain has been a key ally in Iraq and in Afghanistan, not just in terms of sending significant contingents, but also in terms of trying to justify the war to NATO allies, and to try to keep the coalition from going wobbly. We've already had an announcement from the Dutch that they're on the way out. The Canadians are planning to leave next year. The United States needs Britain's steadiness to make sure that the NATO coalition departs Afghanistan in an orderly fashion, and doesn't start to unravel willy-nilly.

Obama has pledged to start withdrawing from Afghanistan next July, a year from now. Of course, it's conditioned by what the situation is on the ground. The British have said they want to be out of Afghanistan by 2014, so there is a bit of a spread here. What will be really interesting to see is whether there are any talks with the Taliban.

There is a huge amount of political activity behind the scenes. Even though the British and American governments are talking the talk of staying the course, they are aware that there is not a military solution in Afghanistan and that the necessary precondition for a serious drawdown is political reconciliation. The most significant differences right now within the coalition and between the coalition and the Afghani government is: With whom does one reconcile? Is it lower-rank-and-file Taliban? Is it Taliban leaders? Are there are any groups that are beyond the pale? What are the preconditions for bringing people in from the cold? My guess is that there was a lot of discussion between Obama and Cameron on the political side of the equation.

I guess we really don't know who would be the proper negotiating party. I can't believe that the United States would want to talk with Mullah Omar, who headed the Taliban when the United States invaded in 2001. There is this constant discussion about lower-level people. How significant would that be?

There are two different approaches at play. One is that by bringing over rank-and-file, lower-level Taliban, you attempt to wean people away from siding with the Taliban and thereby weaken their ranks. That's a different concept than reaching out to higher-level Taliban. The idea is to strike some sort of political bargain in which the Taliban or other groups that are fighting against the coalition and the Karzai government would have a stake in Afghanistan's political map in return for ceasing the combat. I have no privileged information, but I would think those conversations are taking place between Afghans and the Taliban, that the Pakistanis are involved, that some coalition groups are involved, and that there is what I would call a "group grope" for some kind of political modus vivendi."

What can you say about the deficit planning talks the two leaders said they had?

It's talked about a great deal, primarily in the context of the G20 meeting in Toronto. They talked about British austerity packages and about whether the United States is going to head in the same direction. But it's directly linked to the whole question of Afghanistan, because there is going to be increasing pressure in the United States and in Britain to reduce defense spending. In both countries, debt levels are so high that all aspects of government expenditure are going to get whacked. Some in Britain are talking about a 20 percent decline in the British defense budget. In the case of the United States, we're talking about roughly a hundred billion dollars a year going toward Afghanistan, which is many more times the GDP of that country.

Britain's Conservative Party traditionally has been lukewarm about the European Union. With the economic crisis in Europe, what has Cameron been saying about Britain's role in Europe?

The Tories have historically been very anti-Europe. It has tended to cast Britain's role in the world as playing the bridge between the United States and the continent of Europe. It's interesting that Cameron has been somewhat quiet about this issue--the Europhobia, normally quite evident among the conservatives, seems to have been toned down. That's partly because the conservatives are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats who are more pro-Europe, but it's also related to the fact that Britain is beginning to sense that it needs Europe to project its voice in the United States as well as globally. And with the United States no longer depending upon Europe as much as it used to, even the Conservatives are finding that they may gravitate toward some kind of closer relationship with the EU. That could be good for Britain and good for Europe because Europe is going through a political crisis of sorts right now, and more British support and British leadership would be a good thing.

Britain is beginning to sense that it needs Europe to project its voice in the United States as well as globally. And with the United States no longer depending upon Europe as much as it used to, even the Conservatives are finding that they may gravitate toward some kind of closer relationship with the EU.

Many of the questions at the press conference revolved around the release from a Scottish prison of the Libyan Lockerbie bomber, and whether BP had lobbied for that. Cameron, the minority leader when the decision was made, repeated that he was hotly opposed to it, as did Obama last August. Is this just a sideshow?

It will be in the headlines for some time to come, in part because BP is involved, and BP is going to stay in the headlines because of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico - and also because it does involve an act of terrorism in which many American families have lost loved ones. It's a very complicated issue in the following sense: We know that BP lobbied the British government to move ahead with a prisoner return agreement with Libya. That was in 2007. The reason that BP lobbied the British government was because of economic concerns, doing business in Libyan waters. That is not directly related to the Scottish decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, which was taken by the Scottish government on humanitarian grounds. So we don't yet have a smoking gun linking BP to the release of al-Megrahi. BP has said they lobbied generically for a prisoner-exchange deal, but they didn't lobby personally for al-Megrahi. Now, we know that the Libyans were interested in getting al-Megrahi out, so the bottom line is that there remains some ambiguity about what exactly happened. Because of that ambiguity, you will see Congress push for investigations, and you will see the pressure being put both on BP and the British government to dig a deeper into the facts.

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