John Baron MP is a Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has consistently opposed the West’s policy in Afghanistan, and was the only Conservative to vote against the Government’s continued policy in the first vote on the issue in 2010.
The leaked NATO report should be making people sit up and think. It is the result of 27,000 interviews from 4,000 captured Taliban, Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters. The report claims that the Taliban insurgency remains intact – despite NATO’s assertions to the contrary; that the Taliban are being directly assisted by Pakistani security services – despite their claims to the contrary; and that the Taliban enjoys wide support among the Afghan people – again despite NATO claims to the contrary.
These findings confirm that the West now needs to respond positively to Taliban overtures about talks, before it is too late. The British Government has its work cut out to persuade the US to better recognise this fact.
Our strategy in Afghanistan has been dogged by the failure to recognise two fundamentally important distinctions.
The first is that between the key objective of keeping Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, and the accompanying goals. These goals include a stable and secure Afghanistan. The problem is that these goals have become ends in themselves. This loss of focus has caused confusion and produced mission creep. Talk of the need to ensure human rights and democracy are examples.
The Government’s deadline for troop withdrawal for a conditions-based mission – to defeat Al Qaeda – illustrates the point. Troops will be withdrawn, whatever the situation on the ground. No wonder ‘Joe Public’ has still not got the message when the mission is so incoherent.
The second distinction the West has failed to recognise is that which exists between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The relationship is complex and not well understood. Whilst accepting that there are different shades of Taliban, there is little love lost between them and Al Qaeda. The Taliban know that Al Qaeda was ultimately responsible for their downfall. In many respects, Al Qaeda members are seen as foreigners fighting a foreign war. With intelligence sources suggesting there is little remaining of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Taliban would let them back in should they be part of a settlement.
The NATO report confirms that these two distinctions are important. If we are trying to create a stable and secure Afghanistan, then the Taliban have to be defeated. If, on the other hand, our mission is to keep Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, then the Taliban could be accommodated as part of a wider settlement.
The report and these distinctions emphasise the need to open meaningful non-conditional talks with the Taliban, in order to explore possible common ground. This will probably require a preliminary trust-building phase.
Up to fairly recently, the American view – at least publicly – has been that they will only talk to the Taliban if they lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution. This will never happen. The Taliban will not be beaten. The British Government must now press the United States to respond positively to the Taliban’s Qatar initiative. We must remind them that you can talk and fight at the same time – as we proved in Northern Ireland.
This is one of those key turning-points in this long and sorry affair, which we will regret if we pass it up. Afghanistan has cost us dear both in lives and treasure. Soldiers only buy time. The diplomats must now step up to the plate.