UK supports Taliban talks

IssueNovember 2008
News by Gabriel Carlyle

At the end of September, the Observer revealed that Britain has been supporting Afghan peace negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban, despite official denials – opening up the prospect of division with the US.

Though ordinary Afghans overwhelmingly back a negotiated settlement, Britain officially rejects talks except with “those within the Taliban who are genuinely prepared to leave the path of violence and engage in the legitimate political process” (Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell on 7 October). No such requirement to leave the path of violence is required of the western invaders, naturally. It is they who decide what the “legitimate” political process is to be.

Despite such rhetoric in public, in private Britain has apparently provided logistic and diplomatic support for the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there has been “significant assistance from British intelligence”, according to the Telegraph.

The wide-ranging peace process (sponsored by Saudi Arabia) is said to involve a senior former Taliban leader travelling between Kabul, the bases of the Taliban senior leadership in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and European capitals.

The Taliban are understood to have submitted a list of 11 conditions for ending the war, “which include demands to be allowed to run key ministries and a programmed withdrawal of western troops.” (Observer, emphasis added.)

A year ago, reports surfaced of Taliban demands including “control of 10 southern provinces, a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops, and the release of all Taliban prisoners within six months.”

Late last year Afghan president Hamid Karzai offered the Taliban a “department in this or in that ministry or... a position as deputy minister” in exchange for the end of the war.

According to a September 2007 poll, 74% of Afghans support negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and 54% support the idea of a coalition government with them.

Antonio Giustozzi, research fellow at the LSE’s Crisis States Research Centre, and an expert on the neo-Taliban, says in his 2007 book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: “For all their image as an extremist movement, there are some indications that the Taliban might have always been aiming for a negotiated settlement.… The option of ending the war through negotiations still existed in 2007.”

In a possible sign of conflict de-escalation, the Taliban said in early October that they would not attack aid convoys if they were for Afghan civilians and the insurgents were informed in advance. 30 aid workers have been killed and a further 92 abducted, according to the UN.

US-UK divide?

According to the Sunday Telegraph, Britain has been encouraging the Kabul government to talk to the Taliban for more than two years, and British military commanders and diplomats are known to favour such talks.

On 6 October, an anonymous “senior UK official” confirmed Britain’s backing for Karzai’s latest talks initiative: “We support it. It is absolutely the right thing to do,” the official told the Financial Times.

The FT speculated that the British government “risked fuelling a rift with the US… by supporting a military commander’s statement suggesting that a war against the Taliban cannot be won”.

A few days later, however, the FT reported that US defence secretary Robert Gates “said last night that Washington could ‘ultimately’ contemplate the idea of negotiating with the Taliban to secure a political settlement in Afghanistan, if the Afghan government were to pursue such talks.” Gates said a political settlement with the Taliban was “conceivable”.

Topics: Afghanistan