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



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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living