Con Coughlin

Could the Taliban become a useful ally against Islamic State?

Could the Taliban become a useful ally against Islamic State?
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For the better part of a decade, Nato forces fought a bitter war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of thousands of troops - including 453 members of Britain’s Armed Forces – and left thousands more seriously maimed by roadside bombs and other devilish devices.

So it is perfectly understandable that anyone who has had the least dealings with this ugly conflict, from politicians to the families and friends of those who participated, should recoil in horror at reports that senior members of the Taliban are now actively participating in negotiations that could ultimately see them become members of the Afghan government.

The Nato mission to Afghanistan, which at its height saw in excess of 10,000 British troops fighting in southern Afghanistan, may have faded from today’s headlines, but the conflict continues on its relentless course, with the Taliban already making its mark during this summer’s fighting season by conducting a series of high-profile attacks, including one against the Afghan parliament last month.

With the last remaining US troops – around 15,000 are still deployed to Afghanistan in support of the country’s security forces – due to withdraw by the end of 2016, it is vital that some form of political resolution is brought to the conflict soon. Otherwise all the sacrifices of the past decade, both in terms of blood and treasure, will prove to have been in vain, and Afghanistan could easily revert to its former state of Islamist-inspired lawlessness.

Senior commanders who served in Afghanistan, from U.S. General David Petraeus to our own General Sir David Richards, frequently made the point to me that there was no military solution to the conflict per se: their view was that the Nato campaign, though bloody, was simply a means to an end, namely creating the space and stability for Afghanistan’s warring factions to settle their differences and reach a political accommodation.

It was for this reason the US arranged for the Taliban to open an office in the Gulf state of Qatar, and it is a consequence of this continuing diplomatic and political effort to reconcile the Taliban that its representatives earlier this month had their first official meeting with their Afghan counterparts in the former British colonial hill station of Murree, on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

Starting with a sunset iftar breaking the day’s Ramadan fast and ending with a sehri meal before the next day’s sunrise, the two sides are said to have had a lengthy discussion on how to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghanistan. Furthermore, officials from China and America, which both have their own vested interests in making Afghanistan stable and secure, were in attendance, and there are now high expectations that further meetings will take place after Ramadan.

As with any initiative involving the Taliban there are the inevitable questions about whether those who attended the Murree gathering were bona fide representatives of the movement, or stooges of Pakistan’s al-powerful ISI intelligence agency, which is under pressure from both Washington and Kabul to end its practice of providing the Taliban with safe havens in the country’s lawless tribal areas.

But there are also many reasons to believe this initiative could provide dividends, not least the desire of the 20 million or so Pashtuns, who inhabit the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and who have provided the backbone of the Taliban’s support, to enjoy peace after decades of civil war.

Taliban leaders, moreover, have a challenge of their own to confront, in the form of the growing appeal of Islamic State (IS) which, as has happened with al-Qaeda, now threatens to overshadow the more established Islamist movement. Taliban field commanders are said to be increasingly concerned by the defection of their young fighters to IS, and fear the rapid growth of their attention-grabbing rival could ultimately undermine their own cause.

Clearly, any peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani have a long way to run. But nevertheless, if something tangible were to develop as a result of the Murree initiative, it could be that our one-time adversaries in Afghanistan emerge as useful allies in the global campaign to destroy Islamic State.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s Defence Editor and author of 'Churchill’s First War: Young Winston and the Taliban' (Pan Macmillan)