This week's big questions: What should we do in Afghanistan and Syria? What is the role of a modern-day diplomat?

This week's questions are answered by British diplomat Sherard Cowper Coles

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What does Britain’s £2m payment to a Libyan reportedly renditioned tell us about the workings – and morals – of our secret services?

Very little. This is a confidential settlement about alleged past activity, of which I have no knowledge. But I can say that, in my direct experience, Britain’s intelligence and security services have always been scrupulous about observing the law. Every significant operation is supposed to be vetted by lawyers, and approved by ministers. Whatever is said with hindsight, weaning Gaddafi off weapons of mass destruction was a major achievement.

What should we conclude from the CIA’s torturing of a German citizen (according to the European Court of Human Rights)?

Torture is always wrong, and never works. But the temptation to step up to and beyond the line will always be there in times of stress, especially when agencies are faced with what they regard as a “ticking bomb”. The rules and regulations that prevent such lapses need constant attention, and oversight. Of course, post 9/11, the American understanding of what constituted torture differed from those of many others.

Where should the CIA’s priorities lie?

Fighting terrorism and cyber crime. Speaking truth to American power about where the real threats to American security lie. It is important to distinguish between the CIA’s analysts – who have usually been courageously honest – and their operators, including the paramilitary wing. In geographical terms, China will become America’s greatest foreign policy and intelligence priority – if it isn’t already.

What should be our strategy in Afghanistan for the remaining time we are there?

Afghanistan is, and always was, a political not a military problem. What is needed is what was always needed: a double-decker political strategy, involving all the neighbours and near-neighbours, and all the internal parties to the conflict – not just the Taliban – in a process of working towards a new political settlement from which they would all gain. Only America can facilitate this, though not on its own. The US would need to involve the UN, not least to deal Iran into the game, as well as all of Pakistan, India, China and Russia. And they need to be treated as equal partners in the enterprise. Delivering such a political process, to ensure that the sacrifice of blood and treasure has not been in vain, should be top of Obama’s new Secretary of State’s to-do list. Otherwise, we risk leaving Afghanistan rather as Britain left India in 1947, Palestine in 1948 and Aden in 1967 – with a political problem unsolved that comes back to bite us.

Can Afghanistan ever have a settled future of a kind that would meet with the West’s approval?

Yes, of course. If the West is realistic. But it would not be based on the present constitution – designed by a Frenchman and imposed by an American – that goes right against the grain of Afghan political history and geography. What is needed is a much more Afghan solution, with power devolved and distributed, fewer elections and more jirgas [council of elders]. Every state in the region would benefit from a slowly stabilising Afghanistan that was no longer exporting drugs, violence and refugees, and was on the road to resuming its rightful place as the commercial and cultural crossroads of south-west Asia.

Should the West intervene militarily in Syria?

Not yet, and not alone or without the agreement of the key players on the Security Council and in the region. And no outsider should intervene without knowing how long he is prepared to stay, and how he is going to get out. But there may be circumstances in which intervention is the least bad option. As Barbara Tuchman pointed out in her magisterial study of unforced error in history, The March of Folly, all too often the choice in foreign policy is between the unpalatable and the catastrophic. The balance in Syria may be steadily shifting, but Syria cannot be treated in isolation. Much of the turmoil in the Middle East today is in fact unfinished business from 1917, and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Are modern-day diplomats any more than business ambassadors?

Yes. Their main task is what it always was: avoiding conflict and minimising its consequences. Secure voice and video communications mean ambassadors in the field are involved as much in making policy as implementing it. The man on the spot can now be beamed direct into a meeting in the Foreign Secretary’s office in Whitehall.

Do we draw our diplomats from too narrow a social background?

We can always cast the net wider, but the image of the diplomatic service being dominated by public-school educated white males from Oxbridge is out of date. More than half the new entrants are women – not least because women generally make better diplomats. As I point out in my book, the Foreign Office doesn’t need or want the very brightest academic types. What it does need is adaptable personalities, with plenty of common sense, and the right instincts in a crisis.

Sherard Cowper-Coles’s ‘Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin’ is published by HarperPress

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