by Khalid Mahmood
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, believes he has come up with the groundbreaking policy to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. He now argues that we can negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. Rather, Mr Hague should, as something of an historian, give some consideration to the events that have led us to where we are today.
The Taliban were a product of the Mujahidin’s uprising against the Soviet Union’s forces in the 1980s. Enjoying the support of the Saudis, the CIA and the Pakistani ISI, they caused huge damage to the Soviet forces, killing thousands and fatally undermining the previously fearsome reputation of the red army. When the Soviets withdrew, the West and its allies left the Mujahidin and its remnants to its own devices. From the ashes of this unhappiness rose the so called Taliban, who wanted to run the Afghan state according to their twisted interpretation of Sharia law. This interpretation led to the summary executions of men, women and children whose behaviour or beliefs fell short of the Taliban’s exacting standards. We all remember the scenes at the national football stadium in Kabul when a woman knelt on the stadium ground and had a bullet shot through her head. This, along with many other atrocities, was the Taliban’s compliance with Sharia law.
These events did not overly concern us in the west until after September 11 and the integration of Al Qaeda with the Taliban. It was only then that we resolved that action needed to taken to counter the threat to democracies posed by Taliban and the Al Qaeda training camps. We started our campaign by supporting the Northern Alliance to take on the Taliban, before installing Hamid Karzai as president. Elections were then held which proudly claimed the participation of 6 million Afghans. In reality, they were fixed by either Karzai’s henchman or by war lords, at a price of course.
Now that Mr Hague wants to negotiate with the Taliban, I would urge him to consider the following: the Taliban are by definition those who believe in their own “pure” version of Sharia law; how does he intend to negotiate and on what principals of Sharia will the discussions be based? What negotiation will he have with the Taliban as to allowing girls to attend schools or young women to continue in education? What negotiations will he have on allowing women to work and take part in political activities? What guarantees will he seek that the Taliban will not reengage with Al Qaeda? How will he ensure that the very weak government of Karzai stays in power once NATO forces have left? How will he prevent many of the trained Afghan police and soldiers defecting to the Taliban when they see that even we are negotiating with them?
All that a negotiation strategy will do is confirm that we have wasted ten years of effort, resources and above all the lives of many of our brave soldiers. Rather, in order to develop a successful exist strategy, we must change the political structure of the country. The only way forward is to engage with the current pretender to the Afghan throne, crown prince Ahmad Shah Khan, the son of the popular former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. He has the potential to act as a figurehead for the whole country and can unite the disparate groups that make up Afghan society.
If we in the West paid more attention to the cultural habits of Afghans, we would see their respect for the late king. The West has been trying to build a twenty first century Afghanistan, despite political conditions on the ground resembling the eighteenth. Our attempts to impose a democratic culture on Afghanistan have so far led to little progress. Afghanistan needs a unifying figure who all the major groups can work with. This is clearly not the case with Karzai. Any exit strategy is dependent upon a proper assessment of the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, including the war lords and their territorial commands, the re-emergence of the Taliban and what future military support will be required by the Afghan government.
Our battles in the provinces were never going to succeed. Every mistake we have made in terms of civilian casualties and damaging infrastructure has created more Talibans. Our strategy should be based on empowering strong individuals to lead local populations, not having brave soldiers from the UK, USA, France, Germany, Canada etc policing a vast and complex country.
Mr Hague has come up with this botched and ill considered policy due to a botched and ill considered defence review. This review will leave the UK under-equipped to continue with foreign adventures like the operations in Afghanistan. Mr Hague knows that when the review and its incumbent costs come into force we will not be able to sustain our existing commitment to Afghanistan. Mr Hague must be honest with the people of the UK, our heroic armed forces personnel and the families of those soldiers who have died in combat. He should admit that this is a policy dictated by financial considerations on the basis of decisions made by this Tory-Lib Dem government and not in the interests of security of the UK, the people of Afghanistan or our armed forces.
The risk is that any negotiations with the Taliban will be little more than a discussion on the terms of our retreat. Which will not be sufficient return for ten years of blood, toil and money.
Khalid Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr.