James Fergusson: Muscle alone won't solve Afghanistan's problems

Gordon Brown's announcement that it is time to start talking to the Taliban is welcome whatever the Americans may say. But it is only a start. British officers say privately that more water, electricity and roads are needed to make any political deal stick

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To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war, as Winston Churchill once remarked. And when it comes to Afghanistan, it seems that Gordon Brown agrees. Last week he announced that it was time to start talking to the Taliban: a welcome end, perhaps, to a year that has seen more than 6,200 people killed, including 40 British soldiers, in the struggle to contain the insurgency. It has been the deadliest fighting season since the US-led invasion in 2001.

The Prime Minister's announcement is not quite the major policy shift it seems. Negotiation with the enemy has been on the cards for some time. For many months, President Karzai has favoured reconciliation with almost any insurgent prepared to lay down his gun. Many senior British officers, too, say privately that an eventual political settlement is inevitable, and that the sooner we now pursue one, the better. The idea is to isolate the hard-line ideologues the so-called "Tier 1" Taliban who are unlikely ever to surrender by offering an amnesty to the disgruntled poppy farmers, co-opted villagers and jihadist adventurers on whom they depend for their fighting rank and file.

It looks good on paper. The problem is that Washington remains intent on killing or capturing Osama bin Laden and the leaders of the regime that supported him, and is almost pathologically opposed to "talking to terrorists". And for now, only America is putting in the sort of development funding necessary to persuade sceptical Pashtuns that the Karzai government represents a better future. After five years of engagement, the Department for International Development had spent just 390m on Afghan projects. This year, meanwhile, President Bush asked Congress for an extra $8bn (3.96bn) just to fund the country's new security forces. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Still, the timing of Brown's announcement is promising. Last week, the Afghan National Army, supported by thousands of British and American troops, drove the Taliban from the northern Helmand town of Musa Qala, its last significant urban base in the region. The insurgency is on the back foot, and the internationals' intent has been clearly signalled locally. Who knows? Some good might yet come from this call for dialogue.

It is certainly possible to talk to the Taliban. I have done so several times in the past 10 years. The usual view of them as an austere, illiterate band of ideologues, bent on jihad and a fight to the death with the hated infidel, is wrong. For all their undoubted abuses of human rights and crimes against women, the Taliban and the West have more in common than many realise. Their beliefs are always strongly held, but that does not mean that they are fixed. Like anyone else, they can change their minds.

At every meeting, I have been amazed by the variety of opinions on offer and by their eagerness to engage in intellectual debate. In this, they are perhaps like other revolutionary movements. The difference is that the ideas behind most revolutions are (or at least claim to be) new, while the Taliban's date from the early 7th century.

Theology is always the key to a debate with the Taliban. Like many pious Pashtuns, they positively relish a good spat with a Christian infidel. We have their respect, after all. Jesus was a prophet of Allah, too. The Koran is an elliptical document written in poetic and antiquated Arabic, a language open to interpretation even in its modern form, and they find it as difficult as all Muslims do to work out what Allah really intended. "If you turned all the trees on earth into pens and all the seas into ink, you would still not explain all the meanings of the Koran," a religious scholar once told me. Almost any Koran-based piece of doctrine can be demolished by a counter-argument from the same holy scripture. For this reason, the Taliban themselves are constantly riven about the direction of their movement and that is to the West's great advantage.

This February, in Wardak province near Kabul, I spent a long evening with a group of middle-ranking Taliban fresh back from the fighting in Helmand. The meeting certainly had an edge to it. The night before, I later learned, one of their most respected mullahs had been killed in Helmand by a laser-guided Coalition bomb. They were still in mourning for their colleague, but at no point did I feel personally threatened. They remained charming and courteous throughout. This is the beauty of malmastia, the Pashtun tradition of hospitality towards strangers. So long as he comes unarmed, even a mortal enemy can rely on a kind reception. The opportunity for dialogue that malmastia affords is unique.

A lively argument about girls' education ensued. More than 1,100 girls' schools have been attacked or burned down in Afghanistan since 2002, including several in Wardak. I asked why, given that both the Koran and the Prophet specifically approve of the education of girls. "We are not against it," they said. "It is true we have burned down girls' schools but only the ones with Western curricula, where children were being taught pornography." That was the nub of it: these people's antipathy towards girls' education was not based on backward ideology, as Westerners so often and so readily assume, but on ignorance, misunderstanding and distrust of foreigners.

Strange to say, there was a time when even Americans thought that it was acceptable to treat with the Taliban. Ten years ago this month, a black-turbanned delegation travelled to Sugarland, Texas, headquarters of the oil firm Unocal, to discuss the construction of a trans-Afghan gas pipeline. The visit enjoyed the formal backing of the US government. In Sugarland, the delegates dined at the palatial home of a Unocal vice-president, where they were reportedly fascinated by his Christmas tree and the meaning of the star on top. When the delegation left, they were each given a Frisbee, a gift that visibly delighted them.

The finale of this year's violence in Helmand will probably prove to be the reconquest of Musa Qala, a town whose name translates as the "Fort of Moses": a nice reminder that our religions have a common root. Greater understanding between the sides could help Afghanistan in 2008 but only if it is matched by British commitments over spending on development and reconstruction.

James Fergusson's book on the British Army in Helmand is published in 2008

Further viewing: 'The Kite Runner', the film based on Khaled Hosseini's novel, opens in London on Boxing Day

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