Of course we must talk

By Jason Burke, an Observer special correspondent and the author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (THE GUARDIAN, 27/12/07):

Just over six years ago, in the chaotic days that followed the fall of Kabul and the disintegration of the Taliban regime, I drove out of the Afghan capital, heading south-east. Across the country every individual warlord, exiled commander, senior cleric, returning politician or tribal leader was trying to manoeuvre to be best placed for the post-Taliban era, whatever it might bring.In Gardez, a market town halfway to Khost, I found the local governor in his hujra, the guestroom in which males usually come together to meet, eat and talk. In long ranks around its walls, some reclining on cushions, others leaning forward intently, were three dozen grey-bearded men. Over innumerable cups of tea, with bowls of mulberries and boiled sweets before them, they were carving up their bit of the country.

It was a jirga, a meeting exactly like the ones that British MI6 agents and EU representatives are reported to have attended in recent months. Yesterday the Afghan government appeared set on expelling Michael Semple, acting EU mission head, along with a senior UN official, apparently for speaking with locals who included “people who are perhaps undecided whether they are supportive of the government of Afghanistan”, in the coy words of a UN spokesmen. The British secret service agents, for their part, are reported somewhat breathlessly by the Daily Telegraph to have held a number of jirgas with Taliban members. This is apparently a scandal.

For anyone who knows Afghanistan and its future, this sorry tale of manufactured outrage and grandstanding is depressing. The real motives for seeking the expulsion of western officials are revealed by an Afghan foreign ministry statement about “internationals” in the country having to “observe local law”. The fact that Afghanistan – at least in theory – is a sovereign nation is often forgotten, with decisions about the country’s future being made abroad.

More concerning still is the predictable outrage outside Afghanistan over reports that MI6 or the British government might be “talking to the Taliban”. Of course they are talking to the Taliban, as various people have been doing for years. And they are right to do so.

The Taliban are far from homogeneous. Even the original leadership of the movement that seized power in 1996 included factions of varying degrees of radicalism. Some met US government envoys in 1998. It was a more moderate group – clearly all things are relative – that argued for the successful ban on poppy production in 1999 hoping it would lead to UN recognition. In the runup to the 2001 war, despite the Taliban’s increasing extremism, contacts – often via third parties – continued. So talking to the Taliban is nothing new.

The post-2001 Taliban are even more diverse. There are hardcore ideological elements, with whom it would be impossible to negotiate. But there are many “fellow travellers” who will listen to anyone prepared to make them a better offer.

Frankly, this is just about the only strategy left. Militarily, there is a stalemate. All that our expensive and bloody commitment has done is to have contained the insurgency. The Taliban may be far from victory, but we are far from success. The only way to tilt the struggle in our favour is to scale back our aims, isolate the Taliban leadership, cut down their support base, and keep talking and fighting until there is a rump Taliban that is more of a nuisance than a genuine threat to the country’s stability. All this will take a lot of money, time, political focus, jirgas and some basic reason, not manufactured outrage.