To bring peace to the Afghans, talk to the Taleban

Adam Holloway says that Britain’s strategy in Afghanistan is misconceived. Nato’s military presence should be reduced and the battle for hearts and minds fought more imaginatively

26 March 2008

12:00 AM

26 March 2008

12:00 AM

Adam Holloway says that Britain’s strategy in Afghanistan is misconceived. Nato’s military presence should be reduced and the battle for hearts and minds fought more imaginatively

They do not like the F-word in Whitehall, but failure stares us in the face in southern Afghanistan. For three years we have deluded ourselves that we can defeat the insurgency in the Pashtun tribal belt through our much talked-about plan for a ‘comprehensive approach’ — security, governance and development. But in Helmand province and across the Pashtun lands, violence is greatly increased, governance is distinctly patchy and development is barely noticeable.

The government tells us that we are there to stop it becoming a failed state in which our enemies can regroup. Around 50,000 Western soldiers would drive away the Taleban, al-Qa’eda and their friends. But there are other failed states in the world, other areas where extremists are organising against us. Apart from the experience of 11 September 2001, Afghanistan is no more special than the tribal areas of Pakistan or several other places. Surely we can keep tabs on al-Qa’eda without the deployment of tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of lives and billions of dollars? It is not a case of either this, or nothing.

Success depends entirely on the ordinary Afghan. Before the arrival of our forces in strength in the south in the summer of 2006, I visited Afghans independently in the provincial capital of Helmand. ‘If the British bring security and reconstruction, they are welcome here. But if they don’t bring them, then they should leave.’ A year later — after high levels of violence and tiny amounts of reconstruction — I sat nervously with a group of young Helmandis: ‘The British tell us that we have security and reconstruction — but where is it? They should show us, not always just tell us.’

The government points to huge spending. Unfortunately, the Department for International Development is mainly pushing this money into corrupt Kabul government ministries, not into the provinces. This would be all right if we had time — but we are losing the consent of ordinary Afghans in the villages by not pulling projects into Helmand that would support the valiant efforts of our young men and women in dealing with the insurgency. Worryingly, our armed forces are completely dependent on other agencies for delivering long-term success. DfID exists not to support UK foreign policy, but the higher purpose of ‘international development and poverty reduction’. Working to military ends feels somehow a bit grubby. A friend turned down a DfID job in Helmand because she was told it would be too dangerous to leave the British base. It is easy to argue that this is the wrong organisation for this job.


The military and diplomatic chains of command do bad news slowly, and seem to have an answer for everything. For example, on official visits to our bases in Helmand they tell us that you cannot have reconstruction until you have security. But out there beyond the barbed wire of our camps, one Afghan asked me, ‘If you can only have reconstruction when you have security, where is the reconstruction in this town? There is security here.’ Of course, ministers and the career-focused civil servants list the gazillion projects delivered. Unfortunately — whether this is a dozen or a thousand (much nearer the former) — it matters not unless the ordinary Afghan feels these projects have made a difference to his or her life. ‘Is it true that Britain has spent $1.6 billion on war here? Imagine what that would have done if they had given this to the people here for reconstruction.’

The UK is conflicted over opium production. Of course this must be tackled sometime soon. But for now we can either fight the growing insurgency or deal with the drugs — you can’t do both at the same time if you want to maintain the consent of the civilian population. Anyway, this problem is all about demand: you will only reduce supply if you provide alternative livelihoods — something we talk about a lot but don’t seem to be able to deliver.

Speak to almost anyone who has been in the country for more than the six-month tour, and they tell you a simple truth: you cannot impose security on the Pashtuns — this can only be built by them. Alarmingly, they explain that our activities make a stable Pakistan very much less likely in future. The Pashtuns live either side of the so-called Afghan–Pakistan border, but it is no border to their tribal lands. It is completely irrelevant to them. Someone not unknown to the payroll of the Pakistani intelligence services asks, ‘How can a Pakistani government look to the West, while it is the Western powers that are bombing Pashtuns? This makes Pakistan, as currently configured politically, unviable in the long term.’

Every six months the British brigade rotates. With each new brigade our ammunition consumption has doubled. The figures are staggering: 4.5 million small-arms rounds, 25,000 artillery rounds, 77,300 Apache helicopter gunship rounds — in just the first 14 months. One soldier described it as ‘a playground’. A brigadier said, ‘If you send in a hammer, it finds nails.’ Do we win hearts and minds by killing family members of those whose consent we need? This applies, particularly in the Pashtun patronage system, where if you kill one, you affect hundreds. Despite recent very positive efforts to refocus on the needs of the people rather than the Taleban, the very presence of foreign troops is a source of provocation to local tribesmen — who can then be exploited by the Taleban. ‘If you put a stick in a wasps’ nest, you get angry wasps.’

Nato countries are wobbling about ‘war fighting’, or even about being there at all. It is an expensive place in lives and money. Britain has lost nearly 100 dead, and getting on for £2 billion spent. Will even the UK be prepared to pay this price for decades to come?

We need a realistic long-term policy. Our current policy is only winning fire-fights, and is not defeating the mutating insurgency. Many people who have spent more than just a few months of their career in the country believe that answers lie elsewhere: Nato should cut numbers and spending to that which can be maintained for many years; the Taleban must be brought into the political process (though the big ‘if’ here would be the attitude of the US); we should intensively support the large areas of the country at relative peace as well as specific local areas that want nothing to do with the Taleban; we must give hands-on mentoring and support to an Afghan army and police force in containing the insurgency (even if this might not be pretty); we must direct money into infrastructure, education and poverty alleviation — and channel this through provincial government and local shuras; we need to accept that a large proportion of the Afghan population remains deeply traditional and resistant to change. Important aspirations, like women’s rights, will just have to wait until the reality on the ground catches up.

Two months ago Michael Semple of the EU mission was kicked out of Kabul for talking to the enemy. When I met him, red-bearded in traditional Afghan dress, I thought he was the housekeeper. He would drive round the country, drinking tea with his huge range of contacts, speaking fluent Pashtu. We need to reinforce, not expel, people like him. They play the Great Game in a new century. If you understand why a local militiaman puts on the Taleban’s black turban in the first place, you stand a better chance of understanding what you need to do to get him to take it off.

While it would be stomach-churning to talk to people killing British troops, not all Taleban fighters and commanders are irreconcilably opposed to talking about peace. ‘The Taleba
n’ is not some mediaeval force born out of nowhere. In large part they are the ordinary people of the south. They need to be brought into the political process, not bombed out of it. We can make clear that the slightest whiff of al-Qa’eda or its associates will lead to swift retribution. But it is crazy to think that groups of illiterate tribesmen are going to sit around in Helmand planning 9/11s. We are winning lots of battles we don’t need to fight, and they are helping us to lose the wider war.

What we have been doing in southern Afghanistan is a long-term liability for the UK: it has been ill-thought-out, counter-productive, and is a further driver of radicalisation — all of which contribute to our wider strategic failure.

The West has lost considerable goodwill through decisions made after 9/11: this continues to haemorrhage away across the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan. We need to win back that goodwill, fight the battles and do the things that really matter, and free up resources to deal with the very much more serious strategic threats facing us over the coming months and decades.

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Show comments
  • David Lindsay

    We already do. We just call them “tribal elders” when we do it. But they are exactly the same people. Why are we in Afghanistan, anyway? What, exactly, would constitute victory or defeat there? And why, exactly?

  • mark

    at last – an article that both spells out the problem and also proposes solutions – unlike Mr Selbourne’s effort in this edition.

  • Stan Coveney

    Afghanistan is a dead end, a quagmire.
    Millennia of history from Alexander to the Soviet Union invasions tell us that.
    Better to leave Afghans to sort out their own affairs.
    If terror camps spring up then military incursions on various scales from time to time would keep them ‘wrong footed’.
    At present terror groups based in Pakistan operate with relative impunity in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
    Let the terror groups deal with the local people and explain why their occupation and oppression is better that any of the other alternatives.

  • Steve

    An interesting article….but…
    Consider this, if the majority of the Afghan people want a Taliban style government who are we to claim the right to not allow it. Its not our country. It is up to the Afghan people to decide their own destiny. Western style democracy (whatever that may mean) has no place in a tribal society, it doesn’t fit and doesn’t work in that sort of situation, especially when it is seen as being imposed by force of “infidel arms”.
    If all Western troops pulled out the result may not be pretty, at least not to our “bleeding heart” trendy socialists but it would give the Afghanis the opportunity to forge their own society along whatever lines and with whatever social restrictions they want.
    It is pure arrogance by us to assume that we are right and they are wrong.
    The same applies to Iraq. We have no place there, we were not invited, we are not wanted and should therefore leave with all despatch.

  • Steve S.

    Well-done Adam. When are you coming to visit us again in Helmand?

  • Paul

    Interesting stuff and from someone who has been here. I would not agree with the proposed solutions but we are engaged in a much more nuanced military and civil campaign right now that places the population at the centre of our activities not the Taliban. The mantra here is that the population is the prize. Ask Steve S. he can confirm this and it is slowly yielding results.Is there an e-mail address to engage in a less public discussion?

  • Peter Haldane

    Of course the Taliban must be talked to but they cannot be allowed to impose their will to the point that they allow activities within the area of their control that threatens other states. However, it is the Kharzai government that must do the talking and if they are unwilling to do so they must be coerced. It is too important a matter for them to stone-wall on this.

  • Mark

    “Britain has lost nearly 100 dead.”

    Really? NHS kills that many every week. You could talk to the taliban about setting up an NHS for them. They’d never know what hit them.

  • Ron P

    What I think this writer forgets is the fact that Pakistan is a nuke nation and the tribal region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is rife with terrorists that are trying to get a nuke and light it off in a European or American city all in the name of allah. As the war winds down in Iraq (I’ll call that a win for the record, thanks) I say we “surge” in Afghanistan, stomp the lawless tribal region out of existence, set up real security and begin some real rebuilding of the infrastructure. A quick expansion of the road/water systems and farm lands to allow farmers to make the same amount of money on fruits and nuts as they do on poppies will get the country on the right path. Within 3-5 years we could see some real change, and that would include women’s rights (which should not put it on the back burner.) The bottom line is that the taliban are corrupting islam much like al qaeda, and while no one should be told what religion to follow, we are in a worldwide fight against these nuts and the last thing we need to be doing is talking to them. Let the sunnis beat their head on the ground all day long, but the minute they want to take to violence against others it’s no longer a religion, it’s terrorism. You can sit around asking “why” all day long, but in the end it doesn’t matter “why” they the practice a radical form of islam, it’s “when” will they bring it to you and I, again, if we pull out or do nothing about it.

  • dubya

    no difference between taliban and al qaeda — they’re both after religion-based totalitarianism. religion-based governments must not be tolerated ANYWHERE they all demand the citizens enslave themselves to irrational lovers of death.

  • Kristopher

    ( sarcasm )

    You know … all that unpleasantness in the 1940’s could have been avoided had we been willing to talk to the Nazis.

  • BobG

    Yes, Mr Chamberlain, uh Holloway, you are perfectly correct.

    The Taliban have proven that they are reasonable people who would love peace if given a chance. Oh wait, they had a chance.

    I think what Holloway is saying is it is just too hard. We will make our stand behind the cliffs of Dover. Ooops! Too late.

  • sol vason

    Why send money if we simply pull out and leave the country to the Taliban.

    I say take our friends home with us and every spring bomb the heroin crop. Why provide alternative employment? Destroy the crop and they will find some other way to live.

    Great article. I’m convinced. No possibility of sucess in Afganistan but we can destroy the heroin crop.

  • John W

    Michael Yon sent me here. He thinks your point is an important one and needs to be discussed. When Michael Yon puts forth an opinion on the war, we should take notice.

  • Miriam Mendelson

    Quite heartened to see the majority of posters here are not blind to the essential issue: Religious brutality and coercion can be called by any name you want, but they need to be dealt with – and not by accommodation. You can accommodate a people, a tribe, even a religion – but not a pratice. Allowing brutal and repressive practices to continue (whether by al-Qaeda or the Taleban) means allowing the cancer that is overtaking large parts of the Islamic world to continue to grow. The everyday Muslims are the first victims, the West is the second. Oh – women’s rights? Lets allow women (and moderates, dissidents and others for that matter) to be stoned in soccer stadiums and killed by relatives… we’ll get to that when the right time comes. Oh – but by then it will be too late. For them. For us.

  • Kafir

    You say we have lost considerable goodwill across the Muslim world. Tell me what goodwill have we lost? The goodwill that killed all those Israeli athletes in 1972? Or perhaps it was the goodwill that got 50+ US embassy workers held captive for 444 days in 1979. Oh, maybe it was the goodwill that got 200+ US Marines killed in 1983 or a truckbomb in the WTC in 1993, or the goodwill that blew a gaping hole in the USS Cole in 2000. I’m thinking we didn’t have a lot of goodwill to begin with.

    I too came here via Michael Yon. I respect him. What I got most from your article is that we’re not living up to our promises in Afghanistan. Do that first. Then you can talk to the Taliban if you must, but you’ll be able to do it from a position of strength.

  • Ellen J

    This makes sence to me. We seem to think here in the west that we have the right to decide how people should live. That really makes me mad because we talk about freedom but we don’t really advocate it. The truth is simple. You don’t win this kind of war. It just isn’t possible. I understand the fear people have of extremists, but they need to look at history. Because it shows us that persicution makes these extreme groups stronger. This is the first time that I have had confermation that what I have been feeling about this is true and could possibly work.