Sedwill: Life Is Improving For Afghan Civilians

Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, talks to Renee Montagne just before his two years on the job come to an end. He has found that one of his biggest problems has been how to communicate success.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the big ticket items in the federal budget is the war in Afghanistan. And we're going to hear now from NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill. He is the civilian counterpart to the top military commander, General David Petraeus. Ambassador Sedwill's two-year tour in Afghanistan ends in a couple of weeks. He's found that one of his biggest problems has been how to communicate success.

Mr. MARK SEDWILL (Senior Civilian Representative, NATO): It's a less easily illustrated story to tell, I guess. You don't get the same kind of vivid examples that inevitably we see when we start to make military progress.

We have made substantial military progress in the past few months as the surge came in and we were able to drive the Taliban out of the heartlands in Kandahar and indeed out of some other very critical areas to them in Helmand.

Now, the civilian successes in a sense have followed that up. So in those areas we now have government really beginning to deliver for the people. I was in Marja just last week. That was the town we liberated a year ago. And it was so far in the hands of the Taliban that their flag was flying over the district center. And it was derelict when we arrived.

There's now a proper road. There's now street lighting. There's a bustling market. People elected a district council. Their sons are joining the police force. And there's a sense of real normal life and real economic activity returning.

MONTAGNE: And when you speak about progress in terms of sort of commercial activities there, a huge scandal that the country's caught up in is that its biggest bank, Kabul Bank, has been riddled with problems - problems so big that it's possible that it would go under, hundreds of millions of dollars possibly lost through bad loans and fraud, much of that at the hands of the very people who are running the bank or relatives and friends of those in power. Could that affect civilian projects as well?

Mr. SEDWILL: The short answer to that is yes. Actually, I think the collapse of Kabul Bank back in the late summer of 2010 was probably the worst moment of the year. It nearly brought down the entire Afghan financial system, and had they not taken prompt action at that time, I think we could have seen a run on all of the banks, not just on Kabul Bank.

And the victims of this were the millions of small depositors whose money it was being exploited this way, millions of Afghans. And, of course, it's also the bank that has the biggest transaction network in the country, so all public servant salaries are paid through it, including the armed forces. So it was a very serious issue. And indeed, unless that is resolved - and there will be a direct impact on civilian projects - just to give you an example: The salaries of most government servants - teachers, for example - are funded by international aid from the U.K., from the U.S. and other donors, and unless this problem is resolved, they won't be able to deliver that money to the government of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: As NATO's senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, as I've just said, you are on a par with General David Petraeus. But does it seem over the couple of years that you've been there that you've had enough manpower or money to do equivalent kind of work, running civilian efforts?

Mr. SEDWILL: Unfortunately, I guess on the civilian side we don't have the same kind of unity of command and the same kind of force structure it is possible to bring together on the military side. The civilian side is inevitably more dispersed, individual nations, individual agencies, multilateral and bilateral do their work. And of course a lot of this work is not just about building schools, building clinics and roads and so on; a lot of it is also about the political management of our relationship with Afghanistan, because the underlying problems are usually political. They're tribal or ethnic frictions, they relate to corruption, they relate to issues such as the Kabul Bank. And therefore my job in a sense is to try and corral the coalition, whereas General Petraeus's is to try and command the force. So they're very different.

MONTAGNE: Because you'll be leaving in a couple of weeks, if you had to describe how things stand politically at this moment in time in Afghanistan, how would you describe it?

Mr. SEDWILL: I think it's a moment of opportunity to meet the military and civilian soldiers with a political surge, and that means essentially pressing forward on some kind of inclusive political settlement that brings this conflict to an end. But I think we do now have the opportunity to do so and I think we have genuine credibility with the Afghan people, with the region and indeed with our own people, as we look ahead to transitioning authority to the Afghans, underwriting it with a long-term partnership, and trying to help them bring peace to their country.

MONTAGNE: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

Mr. SEDWILL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Mark Sedwill is NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan.

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