Britainâ€™s Ambassador to Afghanistan has stoked opposition to the allied operation there by reportedly saying that the campaign against the Taliban insurgents would fail and that the best hope was to install an acceptable dictator in Kabul.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, a Foreign Office heavyweight with a reputation for blunt speaking, delivered his bleak assessment of the seven-year Nato campaign in Afghanistan in a briefing with a French diplomat, according to French leaks. However sources in Whitehall said the account was a parody of the British Ambassadorâ€™s remarks.
FranÃ§ois Fitou, the deputy French Ambassador to Kabul, told President Sarkozyâ€™s office and the Foreign Ministry in a coded cable that Sir Sherard believed that â€œthe current situation is bad; the security situation is getting worse; so is corruption and the Government has lost all trustâ€.
According to Mr Fitou, Sir Sherard told him on September 2 that the Nato-led military operation was making things worse. â€œThe foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse without them . . . They are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from the crisis, which will probably be dramatic,â€ the Ambassador was quoted as saying.
Britain had no alternative to supporting the United States in Afghanistan, â€œbut we should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing oneâ€, he was quoted as saying. â€œIn the short term we should dissuade the American presidential candidates from getting more bogged down in Afghanistan . . . The American strategy is doomed to fail.â€
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that the cable did not accurately reflect the views of the Ambassador. It is understood that the meeting between Sir Sherard and the French envoy did take place, but that the French account of is regarded in Whitehall as a gross distortion. The French Foreign Ministry did not deny the existence of the cable but it deplored its publication by Le Canard EnchaÃ®nÃ©, the investigative weekly. â€œI am not alarmed because I know that this is not the official British position,â€ a spokesman told The Times.
Claude Angeli, the veteran Canard journalist who reported the cable, said that he had a copy of the two-page decoded text, which was partly printed in facsimile in his newspaper. â€œIt is quite explosive,â€ he told The Times.
â€œWhat I did not say is that our French diplomats quite agree with the British.â€ Mr Angeli also reported that the French had been told that Britain aimed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by 2010.
The pessimistic view in the cable is common among French diplomats and military officers who are concerned by President Sarkozyâ€™s strong support for the Nato operation in Afghanistan and his recent reinforcement of the French contingent. There was suspicion in Whitehall that the British position was exaggerated for French purposes.
Sir Sherard, 53, a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia,was sent to Kabul last year to beef up Britainâ€™s role in the campaign to secure the Government of President Karzai and combat the resurgent Taliban. In an interview last year he said that Britain could expect to stay in Afghanistan for decades.
According to the French cable, he said that the only realistic outlook for Afghanistan would be the installation of â€œan acceptable dictatorâ€ within five or ten years and that public opinion should be primed for this. British insiders said that the Ambassador never uttered these words. â€œThe trouble with the British Ambassador is that he is always at the high end of gloom and doom when in fact itâ€™s not that bad,â€ a diplomatic source said.
After a summer of violent clashes with the Taliban alliance sources admitted that the perception was that the enemy was gaining in confidence. But, said one military source, â€œ in combat terms Nato is still kicking a***â€.
Britain is withdrawing its diplomatsâ€™ children from Pakistan after last monthâ€™s suicide bomb attack on the Islamabad Marriott.