‘I think it is important to recognise that the Taliban’s narrative does not resonate in arguably 80% of the population according to recent polling, particularly among the 60% who are not Pashtun.’

London: General Sir Nick Carter is UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, the principal British military advisor to the British Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Defence and the National Security Council. Previously Chief of the General Staff, professional head of the British Army, he has commanded on operations during the troubles in Northern Ireland, peacekeeping with the UN in Cyprus, peace enforcement with NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo, and commanding the UK-led Brigade in Iraq in 2003-04.
He was responsible early in the Afghanistan campaign for the initial design of Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the Afghan National Army. He commanded some 55,000 NATO troops in southern Afghanistan and played a key role in countering insurgency with General Stan McChrystal and under General David Petraeus, leading alongside the now President Ghani the transition of security responsibility from NATO to the Afghan authorities.
General Nick led the restructuring of the British Army following the national Defence Reviews of 2010 and 2015. As the Chief of the Defence Staff, he introduced the “Integrated Operating Concept”, the strategic design behind the defence element of the most recent Integrated Review. He has led the design of the Armed Forces’ support to the national Covid-19 response. He spoke to The Sunday Guardian:
Antonia Filmer: General Nick you served in Germany during the Cold War and you have been Chief of the Defence Staff since 2018, how has the nature of warfare of changed since then?
General Nick Carter: We believe the nature of war never changes, it is always visceral, violent and full of friction and it is always about the interaction between human beings. It is therefore a political act. Whereas when we talk about the character of warfare, that evolves with technology and tactics. This is what has really changed in my career. Principally because of the pervasiveness of information and the way people have access to it. In the Falklands campaign in 1982 it was entirely possible for the British Government to manage the embedded journalists on the ground to make sure that nothing was said that might compromise the security of the campaign. Each evening carefully composed reports were broadcast on the 9 o’clock news by Ian McDonald, who was the spokesman for the campaign. The government owned the narrative. Ever since then it has become impossible for people to do that, because information has become democratised, and the upshot of all that is a number of things have changed.
The first is the distinction between peace and war is much more blurred than it was, the distinction between foreign and home policy is now blurred, and the distinction between state and non-state is blurred, and the distinction between virtual and reality is blurred. When this is combined with the ever increasing rate of technological change this provides our opponents with new tools, techniques and tactics, that they can use below the threshold of what we would describe as a hot war. They are able to achieve their objectives in fait accompli strategies. And we risk being boiled like a frog. Remember the analogy that if you drop a frog into hot water it will leap out, but if you put it in cold water and turn the cooker up it will not know until it has boiled. That of course is what we are seeing in Ukraine and in the South China Sea.
AF: Do you think information being democratised is a good or bad thing, should we go back to information be more centrally controlled?
GNC: No. I do not think living in democracies that we have a choice, what we have to avoid is in seeking to protect the freedoms that we espouse we must not undermine those freedoms. What is much more important is that we find a way of calling out disinformation and misinformation, we saw it very obviously during the Covid experience where there was a lot of rumour that confused people in misinformation terms, then of course some of our rivals actively used disinformation to further their own ends. The key thing we have to do as democracies is to try and get to a position where we are able to find trusted means of helping the population understand what is true and what is not true. That is why the reputation of, for example, the BBC is so important because free, fair and transparent media builds trust and confidence.
AF: Apart from ceremonial, training and peacekeeping, what is the role of the British Army now? You led the Integrated Defence Review (IDR), which aspects of this are likely to be implemented and evident first?
GNC: The Integrated Review of Foreign, Security, Defence and Development Policy recognised that given the character of warfare and politics I have described, the military instrument is only likely to be effective if it is used in conjunction with the other instruments of statecraft. This is a very important point and that is why it was called the “Integrated Review”; it is about integrating all the levers of statecraft to achieve your national objectives. The second point is that we now have new military domains beyond maritime, land and air, we have cyber and space and of course we have information. Nowadays you are only likely to be successful if you bring together and integrate those domains, because what you will find is the total effect is greater than the sum of the parts. The question is how to do that, this is of course about technology which provides the wherewithal to connect the domains together, but it is also about process, data and it is fundamentally about people. Recruiting and retaining people with the right skills is fundamental.
AF: Where do you find these people with the right skills?
GNC: We have to be slightly more open minded, we are traditionally bottom fed organisations, so you can recruit people at the bottom and grow and develop their skills within our institutions; but what you have to increasingly recognise is that data scientists and data engineers are very precious capabilities and you may not be able to afford to pay them what they need to be paid to serve full time in the armed forces. You may have to find other ways of bringing those skill sets in, whether that is through reserves, contractors or civilians more broadly.
AF: Let’s talk about Afghanistan today, how has the situation changed since 2001?
GNC: In 2001 the US and a coalition of the willing entered Afghanistan with UN support and following NATO’s declaration of Article 5 to remove the Taliban from power and to hunt down Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. A NATO force under UK leadership arrived to stabilise Kabul. Between 2002 and 2010 the NATO mission grew through Provincial Reconstruction Teams, until NATO was present throughout Afghanistan. Then in 2010 at the Lisbon NATO Conference it was decided that NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan would be transitioned to the Afghans from the end of 2014. Since then the Afghans have led the operation themselves with NATO in support until 29 February last year when the US signed a deal with the Taliban to leave this year. So on 4 July NATO forces left the country, leaving only diplomatic presences.
AF: And have we built a nation?
GNC: When you describe Afghanistan in terms of the word “nation” you do have to understand the very complex ethnic and tribal dynamic that underpins the country, 40% of the country is Pashtun and the Pashtun population is defined by its tribalism. Not all Afghan Pashtuns are part of the majority Durani branch, others are Ghilzai, notably the Taliban. Understanding the tribal dynamics and the way that Pashtun population is also markedly represented in Pakistan is important. The second observation I would make is that non Pashtuns are a mixture of Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen and they make up about 60% of the proportion of the population, so Afghanistan is a very interesting cosmopolitan grouping of ethnicities and tribes, and those ethnicities and tribes straddle Afghanistan’s borders particularly in Pakistan, also in Iran and the Stans to the north. Afghan nationalism is therefore interesting and it is more likely to resonate when the country unites against a common threat.
I would also observe that the Taliban know that it’s a very different Afghanistan from the one that they were last involved in governing in up until 2001. The country now has a civil society which is something that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. First and foremost, 8.2 million more children are in school than they were 20 years ago of which roughly three and a half million are girls. Life expectancy has risen from 56 years in 2001 to 64 years today and basic health care is now accessible to 85% of the population. 25% of Parliamentary seats are held by women, infant mortality has significantly decreased, and in fact faster than any other comparable low income country. When I first went there in 2001, only 28% of population had access to clean water, it’s now nearly 70% of the population, and nearly all of the population has access to electricity when back in 2001 probably only 20% did. Beyond the educational system improved infrastructure what you also find is a flourishing media, and we see that in terms of the number of television stations, radio stations and access to social media. All of that means that Afghanistan now has a civil society, and the point about a civil society is that it ultimately has the word in how the country looks. We must beware of about writing anything off just yet, for it is too early to say how Afghanistan will evolve over the next few months and years.
AF: You have said that we have learnt lessons in the past 20 years about how to conduct a NATO mission. What are those lessons?
GNC: The first most important lesson is understanding the local political and cultural situation; so that you are able as you work, to nation build if that is your task, to try and go with the grain of a local solution rather than impose any form of external solution which might not resonate locally. The relationship between the military mission and the local political strategy is fundamental. The second big point is how to build indigenous capability and capacity in a fashion that is likely to stick, so that you leave them with the sorts of institutions that they need but also the sort of capabilities that they need to support those institutions. There are obviously lessons to be learnt about the tactics you apply, we have all learned a lot about the importance of adaptability. Sir Michael Howard always said “No matter how effective you are about predicting the future you will not accurately predict the character of the war you are about to embark on”. The key thing is to make sure you are sufficiently adaptable to be able to adjust with the agility necessary. We have learned a lot about that during our engagement in Afghanistan and more broadly in the campaigns of the first two decades of this century. Adaptability is a really important principle, as is interoperability within the NATO alliance, you need to be able to talk to each other and work together, there are some big lessons that we have all deduced from that.
AF: Do you imagine the Afghan Government would ever reach a political compromise with the Taliban, in what circumstances?
GNC: I think there are three scenarios that could play out: The first scenario is more or less the status quo, in that the existing Afghan government fights on and continues to rule the majority of Afghanistan, particularly in terms of its population in urban areas. The second scenario that could play out is state fracture like we saw in the 1990s, with fault lines being exposed between different ethnicities and tribal divisions, therefore you might see a culture of warlordism. I think there is a third more hopeful scenario where political compromise is achievable. The reason I say this is possible is if the first scenario can play out for long enough the Taliban will recognise that they cannot win through violence and they need to talk. The second reason it could play out is that in mid-June the Council of Religious Scholars from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the so-called Ulemas, travelled to Saudi Arabia, where under the aegis of the Grand Sheik, they declared the war in Afghanistan illegal under Islamic law. The fact that foreign troops have now gone means that the credibility and legitimacy of the Taliban insurgency is now no longer either of those two things. The “Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan” has not been, I suspect, adequately publicised in anything other than the Islamic world. The third reason is that it is not in the interest of the neighbours, whether that is India, Pakistan or Iran, for there to be instability in Afghanistan so great pressure will be placed on the Taliban and the Afghan political fraternity more widely to talk, because it is not in the interest of neighbours to have more refugees and terrorists, which is what would happen if Afghanistan becomes less stable. The fourth reason is that the Taliban have recognised that Afghanistan has changed. It now has a burgeoning civil society and the Taliban want some form of international political legitimacy; we see that in the way they have engaged with US in Doha, and how they wish to engage on the international stage in diplomatic terms. For all those reasons I think it is reasonable to suggest that my third scenario could play out, and it will be a question of how much fighting for the provincial capitals goes on in the meantime.
AF: What makes the Taliban narrative credible, when their actions do the opposite?
GNC: I think ultimately it comes down to what life is like for the average Afghani in the rural areas of Afghanistan. They lead a very harsh life and the thing they are most interested in is who is going to be in charge tomorrow, who is going to provide some modicum of security as they go about their lives in as peaceful a fashion as possible. If they do not believe the forces of the government are able to provide that, then they are more likely to gravitate to the forces of the Taliban or the local warlord or whomever else is in charge around there. The Taliban have been successful in describing their form of governance as being one that provides security for the population but also one which provides very rapid justice, and that is the first two duties of government and therefore it has been possible for the Taliban to push a narrative which has resonated to one degree or another in some of the rural areas. I think it is important to recognise that the Taliban’s narrative does not resonate in arguably 80% of the population according to recent polling, particularly among the 60% who are not Pashtun.
AF: You have said the Afghan Government have a sensible strategy to retain regional capitals, do they have the right equipment and logistical support to do this? And to reclaim captured territory?
GNC: It is quite challenging for them to be operating without the airpower that the US and NATO have provided. They have got to come to terms with only having the airpower that the Afghan Air Force has, that is difficult for them. If they are able to apply the two very important military principles of concentration of force and economy of effort to secure the provincial capitals, there is no reason to suppose that they cannot hold enough for the Taliban to realise that they cannot win through violence. “Winning” is ultimately about connecting governance to the population and if the Taliban are unable to provide governance to some of these rural areas, they will naturally gravitate back to the government.
AF: How does UK “retain connection and diplomatic presence” actually manifest on the ground in Afghanistan? Who do we retain connection with and what support can the international community and the UK offer to whom in Afghanistan? What is the best way for the UK to engage, to help the existing checks and balances of government and governance in Afghanistan remain in place?
GNC: We have an embassy in Kabul and through that diplomatic mission, we will provide advice and resources and all of those sorts of things to the Afghan government. We have always had a very significant development mission in Afghanistan, and we have done some impressive things in terms of helping education, healthcare, the burgeoning civil society and media that I described. We will continue to provide advice and help to do those sorts of things. We will continue to have a bilateral military relationship, provide military training in our institutions outside Afghanistan. NATO are working through the options for out of country training.
AF: Is there a role for India? Could India train the ANA?
GNC: Definitely. India has done a lot of training for Afghans and provided much help with infrastructure development, of course India has a very important role to play in regional stability generally. It is sad that India has been obliged to close her consulate in Kandahar but the Indian role in Afghanistan has always been a stabilising role. And we very much hope that as one of the close neighbours and supporters of matters Afghan that the Indians will stay involved. And of course India has connections with other neighbours who can help. So the answer is the UK has always had respect for India’s role in this and hopes that India continues to play her very positive role.
AF: Do you foresee any risk of Afghanistan being a crucible of Daesh/ISIS and the Taliban to coalesce and export terror to the West and beyond?
GNC: I go back to my scenarios, if my second scenario plays out there is a significant risk that parts of Afghanistan will become possible bases for terrorism regionally and internationally, which is why an Afghanistan that fractures and becomes a failed state is not in anyone’s interest. Daesh is a feature of the terror situation in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
AF: And last in a different sphere, how do you see the situation in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea shaping up once HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Strike Carrier Group arrive?
GNC: I think the important point to make about all of this is that we are deploying this carrier group to the Indo-Pacific, because we have British interests in the region and importantly we believe strongly in a rules based system and being able to sail where you want to sail and to make sure that trade routes are open. This is a principle that we firmly espouse and was very much at the of heart of our Integrated Review. A view that the international system needed to evolve to be as fair as possible to enable all people to benefit from it, is right at the heart of the UK’s values. It is also important to note that a number of our friends in the region have invited us; it is about engagement, reassuring our friends and making sure that international principles around open seas are properly upheld. From a military perspective it is also about ensuring that this new capability of the Carrier Strike Group is given a proper airing at reach from the UK, to make sure the capability is as proficient as we want it to be.