All quiet on the Afghan front
Those who attended the Hay festival debate between Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and Rory Stewart—who also duked it out in the January 2008 issue of Prospect—say it was enthralling. So why did this verbal joust about Britain’s Afghan policy end up on the cutting-room floor?
Most of the other Hay talks were uploaded as podcasts to the festival’s website. But of the Afghan debate, not a trace. No explanation was forthcoming. But it may have something to do with the content of the debate, in which Stewart, a longstanding critic of Britain’s Afghanistan policy, was felt to have got the better of his opponent (who admittedly had his hands tied). One of the juicier moments came when Cowper-Coles told a questioner that the British were talking to the Taliban—something of a touchy topic given American hostility to the idea of dialogue with evil-doers. Another was when Cowper-Coles was asked about Hamid Karzai. The ambassador replied that he couldn’t say publicly what he really thought of the Afghan president. To speak candidly, he would have to meet the questioner for a drink afterwards. It is not known whether the invitation was taken up.
It has since transpired that Stewart, who has been running an NGO in Kabul, is leaving to take up a post at Harvard. His reference for the job came from Cowper-Coles himself. According to one Afghan aid expert, it is not hard to explain why Cowper-Coles might have given Stewart a glowing write-up. Anything to get a vocal critic out of town to allow the Brits to get on with some good old-fashioned quiet diplomacy.
Image, below: a horse during a military parade in Caracas for Venezuela’s independence day, 5th July 2007
Muslim clerics aside, the other surprise winner of Prospect’s intellectuals poll has been American comedian Stephen Colbert, who topped our vote for a figure not on the official list. Perhaps best known in Britain for his unforgettable Bush-bashing at the 2006 White House correspondents’ dinner (at which he praised Fox News for giving viewers “both sides of every story: the president’s side and the vice-president’s side”), he has also been awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts, three Peabody awards for broadcasting excellence, and had a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour named after him—an honour…