It was all smiles and backslapping at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led security mission, as dignitaries gathered Saturday to bid farewell to Mark Sedwill, senior civilan representative and former U.K. ambassador.
Sedwill, who was the U.K.’s envoy to Kabul from 2009 to early 2010, assumed the position of NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in January 2010, making him the mufti equivalent of Gen. David Petraeus.
Petraeus was full of praise and warm words for his civilian counterpart, pinning two medals on his chest and sprinkling his valedictory speech with superlatives praising Sedwill’s superb leadership and brilliant efforts to maintain the alliance during his 15-month tenure.
The departing ambassador entertained the illustrious crowd with fond if teasing references to Petraeus, speculating that a movie about his time at ISAF might someday be made, called, perhaps, “A London Limey ay King David’s Court,” a twist on the Mark Twain classic. He modestly suggested Colin Firth or Hugh Grant to play himself, depending, he said, “on whether it is a comedy.”
But he was unstinting in his admiration for Petraeus. “One man I must single out,” he said. “Dave, it has been an immense privilege to serve alongside you. I have learned more about strategic leadership in the past nine months than in the previous nine years.”
Petraeus was appointed to the ISAF leadership in June 2010, after his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was sacked in the wake of some very ill-advised comments made to a Rolling Stone reporter.
Both men were at some pains to further the narrative of “victory snatched from the jaws of defeat” that has become the standard ISAF line.
“When I arrived here, many thought this was 'Mission: Impossible,'” said Sedwill. “While as General Petraeus says, it is all hard all the time and there is a long, hard road ahead, we have proved in the past year that it is 'Mission: Achievable.'”
Sedwill is not breaking his ties with Afghanistan; he is going to be the U.K.’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a position that was held until last September by Sir Sherhard Cowper-Coles, who also preceded Sedwill as London’s ambassador to Kabul.
Cowper-Coles had a rocky ride as special representative, clashing with NATO over the counterinsurgency, which he thought was doomed; advocating talks with the Taliban; and also, reportedly, leading an unsuccessful “dump Karzai” drive in the months before the 2009 presidential election. Cowper-Coles stepped down from the special rep position after taking several months’ leave last year.
Sedwill should have no such difficulties. According to his main fan, Petraeus, he has managed to establish close and productive relationships with both the Afghan government and the international alliance.
The troops as well seemed to be genuinely fond of the outgoing ambassador, with more than one officer sighing to journalists that the senior civilian “will be a hard act to follow.”
While Sedwill’s immediate future is set, the same cannot be said for ISAF’s military chief.
In an informal meeting with journalists after the farewell ceremony, Petraeus was coy, but declined to quash rumors that he may be headed to the CIA.
“I think it’s probably not appropriate for me to comment,” he said. “I serve at the pleasure of our elected leaders.”
Petraeus took the opportunity to continue the rosy assessment he has been dispensing for the past several months. He brushed aside concerns over strains in the NATO-Afghan partnership, which have become increasingly apparent.
By any measure, the relationship between Hamid Karzai and his foreign backers are at rock-bottom. There have been public disagreements over aid money, private security companies and provincial reconstruction teams, along with several widely publicized incidents of civilian casualties that have moved the Afghan president to fury and tears.
This was compounded by what many saw as Karzai’s inflammatory statements in reaction to the burning of a Quran by a small-time pastor in Florida last month.
But Petraeus refused to be drawn into negativity. Civilian casualties were down according to U.N. statistics, he emphasized, and ISAF had been doing its best to explain to the Afghan government just how it planned to avoid civilian casualties in the future.
“Human terrain is the decisive terrain in this endeavor,” he said. “We are here for the people.”
But he did acknowledge that mistakes were made, particularly in Kunar, where nine young boys were targeted and killed by a U.S. helicopter gunship in March.
“I apologized,” he said, adding that a “variety of actions” had been put in place to make sure that similar incidents were avoided in the future. He also said that some individuals were “suspended from command” as a disciplinary measure following the boys’ deaths.
Petraeus also waxed eloquent on the rebuilding efforts in Kandahar province, where entire villages had been razed to clear them of Taliban-planted mines.
“I was heartened to see the reconstruction in Arghandab, a place we wrested control of from the Taliban,” he said. “Houses are already at the first-story level, and we have planted hundreds of thousands of trees.”
Petraeus also tackled the tragedy in Mazar-e-Sharif, where 12 people, including seven U.N. staffers, were killed in protests following the burning of the Quran.
“Having clearly condemned the burning of the holy Quran as hateful, disrespectful, and intolerant, we also condemned those who hijacked the emotions of crowds who were understandably upset,” he said.
Petraeus dismissed recent media reports that Al Qaeda might be re-emerging in Afghanistan, said that there was now “unprecedented cooperation” between NATO and Pakistan on rooting out terrorists from their safe havens, and challenged any reporter who thought the 58-year-old general might be tired of his posting to a five-mile run.
All in all, it was an extremely optimistic delivery in the midst of what has been a very dark week. Most embassies and major organizations are still locked down after the violence in Mazar-e-Sharif on April 1; many feared that the mayhem would be repeated after Friday prayers this week.
Fortunately, all was quiet.
If Petraeus and Sedwill are right, it could stay that way.