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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Support Engineer is required to join a well-...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Administrator - Swedish Speaking

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

What Lord Myners tells us about the Royal Mail sell-off shows just how good the City is at looking after itself

Chris Blackhurst
Police are called to Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Sydney's Martin Place, a busy plaza in the heart of the city  

After the Sydney Siege, would Australia be safer with American-style gun laws? The answer is simple

Neil Brennan
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum