An interview with KCL’s Professor Theo Farrell

Theo Farrell at his Office

Theo Farrell at his Office

Professor Theo Farrell appears, at first glance, to be an ordinary academic. Smart and professional-looking, he seems at home in the Pacific offices of the King’s College London War Studies department. Strange to think that he has been to Afghanistan four times – more than some servicemen. Specialising in modern security issues, he has established a respectable reputation for himself.

One of the few British academics literally working in the field, Professor Farrell was called on last November to speak before the House of Commons Defence Committee on the situation in Afghanistan. Moreover, his June 2009 visit was on invitation to review the British Army’s campaign in Helmand province, also giving two campaign-wide assessments for Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez in January and October last year respectively.

When I asked about Farrell’s experiences in Helmand, he spoke of the difficulties in getting a “true picture” of the situation. For this, perhaps the foremost reason is the sheer danger that foreigners face in Afghanistan. Indeed, few observers leave the primary International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) bases, or the main cities. However, his work for the British government included assessing the largely UK-run Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Under PRT protection he could move relatively freely around the province, allowing him to visit such remote places as Nad-e-Ali. Once a Taliban stronghold, he was even able to speak with local councils or shuras.

It was these experiences that led Farrell to his distinctly optimistic opinion on the progress of the war in Afghanistan. His positive outlook is summarised in a commentary piece which he wrote in late 2009 for The Guardian. When I asked him whether he still held this positive view, his response was clear; yes. He explained that, looking back over the previous year, he could see “very significant improvements in most areas of PRT activity,” adding that the overall picture was “very encouraging.”

I then asked if he disagreed with those arguing the war to be unwinnable. Expecting an obvious answer, I was surprised to hear: “no.”

When returning home, however, Farrell found that newspapers like The Guardian failed to reflect the reality he had seen for himself. Displaying a true academic’s best quality – rationality – he acknowledged his limits at the time before criticising: “I know I only saw one particular perspective of the campaign… but the assessment I did was a critical assessment. It was looking critically at all aspects of the PRT.” Even so, he thought it proper and necessary to “counterbalance the unrelentingly negative reporting…”

Farrell’s stance is not unreasonable. He outlined how, operationally, the campaign is yielding results in four key areas. Firstly, he argues, the current approach to Counter-Insurgency operations is successful, bolstered by growth in the Afghan security forces and the growth of regional governance. Finally, the momentum of the military campaign is showing “very clear signs of progress.” In fact, Farrell and a colleague have written an article for the March edition of International Affairs, covering his argument in more detail. I then asked if he disagreed with those arguing the war to be unwinnable. Expecting an obvious answer, I was surprised to hear: “no.”

He elaborated, stating, “The problem with this campaign is that there are three strategic obstacles… and they cannot be dealt with by further progress at the operational level.”

stressing how such improvements follow a ‘hockey-stick curve.’

The first, corruption within the Karzai government, is exacerbated by the second: NATO war-weariness. Together, they shake Afghan confidence in alternatives to the Taliban, especially considering the upcoming 2014 NATO withdrawal. Perhaps most important, however, is the network of safe-havens in Pakistan, undermining attempts to neutralise the insurgency.

Though a dangerous situation, Farrell highlighted causes for hope while we discussed these problems. For example, he noted successes in the development process – like Garmsir under the US Marines – stressing how such improvements follow a ‘hockey-stick curve.’

Essentially, long-term investment produces long-term sustainability, and with it the circumstances needed to ultimately overcome the Taliban. This, supported by ISAF’s successful campaign to eliminate Taliban leaders, offers the chance of long-term security at a local level – arguably the key to offsetting these three strategic obstacles.

With the interview drawing to an end, I asked Farrell what he thought the future held. His response, “It would be a foolish person to predict,” perfectly underlined the uncertainties revolving around the issue. Though the next four years may be difficult, there is still much to play for – not least the chance to finally eliminate the backwards, threatening Taliban.

About The Author

As a student of War Studies and History at King's College London, politics and key events – both past and current – have always fascinated me. Inspired to engage with political ideas by my interest in foreign languages and cultures, I seek to approach and analyse current affairs with a distinct and challenging perspective.

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