Thursday, 22 May 2008

To talk, or not talk, with the Taliban?

The Daily Star
Tuesday 15 January 2008
By Michael Glackin

"Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private individuals." So spoke Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller's famous World War II novel "Catch 22." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown must have a soft spot for Heller's antihero. The expulsion from Afghanistan last month of two private individuals close to, but with no formal attachment to, the United Kingdom government after they held talks with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan fits in neatly with Minderbender's theory of how to win a war. But despite the denials, it is hard to conceive that Irish-born European Union official Michael Semple or Northern Ireland-born United Nations worker Mervyn Patterson were not acting without at least the tacit blessing of the British government, even if Afghan President Hamid Karzai was kept in the dark.
Quite why Brown continues to insist that direct talks with the Taliban are not happening is a mystery. Four months ago both the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Office confirmed to me that contacts with the Taliban and its fellow travelers were going on through various channels "on the ground." It was an operational decision, the Defense Ministry insisted, not policy. But even allowing for that, reports that the British foreign intelligence division MI6 had also been negotiating with Taliban leaders should not come as a surprise either. Lest we forget, in Iraq the UK successfully negotiated a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army to ease a British military withdrawal to the departure lounge of Basra Airport last year.

But unlike Iraq, where the UK is leaving behind a mess (around 40 women have been killed for supposed "un-Islamic behavior" since September in Basra), there is no easy exit from the Afghan conflict. However, plainly, a variant of the Basra model - reaching out to elements of the Taliban and tribal leaders who might be "reconciled" to the Karzai administration - is a central aim in the Afghan war. It's all a bit reminiscent of the Great Game era of the 19th century when Britain and Russia vied for supremacy in the region.

Reports indicate that Semple and Patterson held secret meetings with a Taliban leader, Mansour Dadullah, who has waged a bitter war against the British Army in Helmand Province, to try to persuade him to break with the Taliban and form his own political party and militia. Soon after, a statement from the Taliban leadership released via the Islamic Press Agency, said Dadullah had been sacked for refusing to obey orders. It warned his followers to break of all contact with him and pursue their jihad. Of course Karzai has been talking with the Taliban for some time now and last year even made an appeal for talks with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. His annoyance with the Semple-Patterson talks came from the fact that his still weak position would be weakened further if he were bypassed in talks with the enemy.

At the heart of all this is the grim realization within the British government that there are limits to what military action in Afghanistan can achieve. The Soviet Union lost its war there with 300,000 troops; the UK- and United States-led international force is fighting with less than 45,000. The Taliban may not be able to defeat the West's military might, but the West cannot ultimately defeat the Taliban either. To break the stalemate, Brown, upon his return from last month's flying visit to Afghanistan to meet Karzai, unveiled what he called his "new strategy" for the UK's role in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, most of it turned out to be old hat. Brown did say he would increase support for Helmand's "community defense initiatives," where, as he put it, "local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modeled on traditional Afghan arbakai." But this plan was shot down was last week by the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, US General Dan McNeill, who fears it will fuel inter-tribal fighting in the south.

Brown's announcement that the UK would, between 2009 and 2012, offer around $900 million in development aid and something called "stabilization assistance" was nothing particularly new either, because the money promised does not substantially increase current British financial support. Indeed the cash remains some way below the amounts the UK is putting into Iraq - which, in addition to having large oil revenues to rely on, also has less people than Afghanistan. Set Brown's investment against President George W. Bush's request to Congress for an extra $8 billion just to fund Afghanistan's new security forces and it looks half-hearted.

Ultimately perhaps, Brown knows that Karzai's tenuous grip on power can only be strengthened by persuading local leaders to back him. And the prime minister also knows that the need to get their backing has become more urgent in the wake of last month's assassination of the Pakistani opposition politician Benazir Bhutto. If civil unrest in the wake of Bhutto's murder forces Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to divert forces from the border areas, the Taliban could well be in a position later this year to reverse many of the losses they suffered to the coalition forces.

Against this backdrop, Western states may struggle to hold the ring in Afghanistan, although British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has unveiled what he called a "diplomatic surge" in the Middle East and Asia - increasing diplomatic staff in the region by 30 percent. Maybe he plans to talk the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to death.

As in Iraq, there will be no definitive military victory in Afghanistan. But the elephant in the room appears to be a realization by the UK that longstanding sectarian and tribal differences have made new democratic procedures and the Afghan government the West has established unworkable. Through his willingness to bring some Taliban fighters in from the cold, Brown is happy to concede, as he has in Basra, that the kind of democracy envisaged at the onset of the invasion in 2001 was more a lofty aspiration than a reflection of reality on the ground.

Michael Glackin, a journalist and former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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