BBC NewsAndrew Marr Show


Last Updated: Sunday, 10 February 2008, 10:13 GMT
Afghanistan 'is a failed state'
On Sunday 10 February Andrew Marr interviewed Lord Ashdown, Liberal Democrat

Lord Ashdown warns time is running out, to save Afghanistan.

Lord Ashdown
Lord Ashdown, Liberal Democrat

ANDREW MARR: Thank you very much indeed for joining us.

It looks a beautiful day out there Lord Ashdown.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Andrew, Paddy if you can. Yes it's wonderful. Who would imagine it was February?

Here I am at Cawsand, just outside Plymouth. It feels like spring.

ANDREW MARR: Global warming taking effect. No spring really in Kabul politically. From your perspective was it as straightforward as Hamid Karzai saying I will not have that man because he's been, he's been in a sense I suppose too effective in Bosnia, he's going to be too big a character?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Look I wouldn't like to speculate Andrew on the reasons for what happened. I mean I think they are almost certainly to do with internal Afghan politics, probably to do with internal Pashtun politics. These are complicated matters.

I mean I made it very clear when Conde Rice first asked me to do this back in October and David Miliband backed that up with a phone call saying I hope I would that I didn't want to do this. I really did not want to do it.

I could be drafted if the conditions were right but it was not my choice. One of the key elements that I made clear to them, as we began to assemble the terms of reference for this - and I must say they were as good as their word in saying that they would give me the power to be able to coordinate the international community. This was never about having the powers that I had in Bosnia. They would have been completely inappropriate and I wouldn't have accepted them if they'd been offered.

The Afghan government is a sovereign government. But one of the things I made specifically clear was this could not be done without the active support and engagement of the Afghan government and President Karzai. And I met him on one occasion at length, spoke to him on at telephone at another. We shook hands on it, verbally of course, and - down the telephone line. And so as far as I was concerned the conditions were in place for me to do this. As I said I didn't welcome it but I was prepared to do it.


PADDY ASHDOWN: I began to assemble a plan and then suddenly everything changed. Now the reasons for that I think are to do with internal politics in Afghanistan. The real question is not why did it happen but what do we do now.

ANDREW MARR: Yes. Well I'd like to ask you that directly. But in your letter to the Secretary General you did say you thought it was because you were British, there was a sort of British-ness problem.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Yes. I mean I can't, I don't, I can't get to the heart of this to be very blunt with you Andrew. I spoke to Sherard Cowper-Coles our ambassador in Kabul and he's a very good ambassador and knows the situation extremely well. And I, I asked him you know am I being used to get at Britain or is Britain being used to get at me. And he said "I think Britain's being used to send a message to you".

So clearly there was a limit to which I could allow that to happen. And I certainly didn't want a situation where anti-British feeling - these are dangerous things in that climate - would be generated in Kabul. And you saw that from some of the Karzai's statements, in order to get a message to me. I didn't think that was either fair or helpful to Britain and I didn't think it would enable me to do my job more effectively. So again this is the past. I think the important thing now is we concentrate on the future.

ANDREW MARR: What do you think's causing the anti-British feeling? It seems to be strong. I mean there was, there were particular comments that President Karzai made about the British forces in Helmand for instance.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well I, again I can only say to you that I think it was a series of plays from the Afghan government. The aim of which was to send a message saying that Paddy Ashdown's not the kind of person that we want to have in Afghanistan with the powers that the international community appears to have given him. Now let me stress again those powers were not about telling the Afghan government what to do. That would have been inappropriate and wrong. And nobody wanted to do that.

The powers were about coordinating the international community. But again Andrew let me just say President Karzai, a man who I respect and I wish him well and I wish his government well, is a politician. He's lining up to (hopefully, he would see it) win the presidential elections likely to be in two thousand and nine. I suppose he must have calculated that beating up on Britain, an ex imperial power, beating up on the United States was not going to do him any harm in a proud Afghanistan amongst the Pashtun vote.

Now that's my guess of what went on. But as I said to you earlier on the really important thing is not why did Karzai not accept Ashdown. The really important thing is what does the international community do now. And that I think is the crucial issue. I mean to be very blunt with you when I first looked at this job I thought that Afghanistan almost could not be saved. The tide was running so strongly against us. In the process of those two or three months when we began to assemble a plan I saw signs of optimism, a job it seemed to me could be done.

ANDREW MARR: What would you have done?

PADDY ASHDOWN: And so the important thing now ..

ANDREW MARR: Sorry, sorry to interrupt you.


ANDREW MARR: What would you have done with that plan to start with?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well first of all, first of all the most important thing to do is to make sure the international community speak with a single voice, have got a strategy and are able to concentrate on the things that matter. So item number one is get someone who can do that kind of a job.

If not me then somebody else. Item number two, concentrate on the things that matter and not on the things that you'd like to do but matter less. So what are those things? And I concluded there were three.

And we had to concentrate absolutely fiercely on three priorities. One, security. We have to act in a way that will give the Afghan citizens the confidence that we can provide them with security better than the Taliban. I don't mean military security, I mean security in the round, human security.

Two, governance. You have to deliver governance and you have to strengthen the instruments of the governance of the government of Afghanistan otherwise how can you hand things over from them? And that has to be done from the bottom up, not the top down.

ANDREW MARR: And does that mean talking to Taliban and ex Taliban leaders, the kind of thing that's caused all the controversy in the last couple of weeks?

PADDY ASHDOWN: I think the important matter here is really that you are prepared to deal with, to speak with, those who are prepared to use the constitution of Afghanistan in order to get their point across. But you are implacable and fierce about those who want to use violence to change the constitution of Afghanistan.

You know we spoke to the IRA, we spoke to Sinn Fein when they were prepared to use the ballot box and the constitution. And I think that's a general rule about peace stabilisation missions that probably applies in Afghanistan too.

ANDREW MARR: And your third point? There were three and I interrupted you after number two I think.

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well, it's okay. The important thing about, about that is that you judge people by their actions, not what they call themselves. The third point is the interconnecting point which is concentrate on the rule of law. We have to strengthen judicial structures, we have to strengthen the police, we have to strengthen the security sector. So those three things, one security, human security, two, governance, three, concentrate on the rule of law. And we need to turn everything to those three, to those three, to those three aims.

ANDREW MARR: And when Oxfam said in effect that Afghanistan was on the absolute edge of becoming a failed state they weren't overdoing that were they?

PADDY ASHDOWN: Well I think Afghanistan is a failed state. I don't think it's on the edge of it. The question is are we on the edge of losing this battle.

And my view is that unless we can turn this round pretty quickly, and we can only do that if the international community speaks with a single voice, we have a strategy, and it concentrates on the priorities, unless we can turn this thing round pretty quickly then I think it will not be possible to turn it round. Events are now moving against us and the tide has to be turned. And you haven't got very long to do it.

Andrew, I've been watching the opinion polls and this is the central question. Can you sustain public opinion in favour of what you're doing? Now there is still a majority in Afghanistan who want the international troops to stay there. But that majority is sliding. And once that graph begins to dip it's very, very difficult to turn it round.

I remember in Belfast in nineteen sixty nine when I was a young soldier we were welcomed by the Catholics with cups of tea and sandwiches. It took us a year to lose their support and thirty five years to gain it back again. And unless you can turn that graph round pretty fast then I think the situation in Afghanistan becomes more and more difficult to deal with.

ANDREW MARR: Paddy Ashdown thank you for that albeit grim warning from a beautiful setting. Thank you very much indeed for joining us.


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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