Comment: Taliban talks could save face after a difficult decade in Afghanistan

By John Baron MP

After several false starts, we must welcome the recent announcement that Nato and the Taliban are in talks. A political settlement is essential pending our withdrawal of combat forces by the end of next year. However, we must learn from past errors if these talks are to succeed and focus on the original mission. For too long, we have been fighting the wrong enemy because we confused our aims.

Whilst our initial mission to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaeda was laudable and understandable, our policy since has been undermined by two factors – lack of clarity as to the continuing mission, and subsequent confusion as to our real enemy.

Within a few years of our involvement, al-Qaeda had been substantially curtailed – the 2011 foreign affairs committee report substantiated this fact. However, at this stage our mission morphed into one of nation-building, along with the concomitant aims of democracy, respect for human rights and freedom of speech.

This was a classic example of 'mission creep', and directly led to a muddying of the water as to our enemy. Whilst eliminating international terrorism required defeat of al-Qaeda, long-term nation-building required wholesale control of the country and its institutions.

This approach created an enemy out of the Taliban, a movement which had virtually no interest in the world outside Afghanistan. Western policymakers were blind to the significant differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Many Taliban have not forgotten that al-Qaeda abused their traditions of hospitality and were consequently directly responsible for their loss of power. Moreover, to many Taliban, both Western troops and al-Qaeda are interlopers on their soil.

Compounding our error is the fact that many terrorists crossed the border and found sanctuary in Pakistan. Whilst the controversial American drone programme has addressed this issue, for British troops the result has been that, in many ways, they have been fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.

For those of us who have been critical of our involvement in Afghanistan, it has long been painfully obvious that a political settlement between the West and moderate elements of the Taliban is badly needed. Crucially, this will allow both sides to disengage whilst saving face.

Previous talks have foundered on the altar of preconditions. For the Taliban, they insist on the return of prisoners from Guantánamo; for the Americans, they insist the Taliban must renounce links with al-Qaeda, lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution. Clearly these 'red lines' will have to be softened, but it is encouraging that the Americans are moving in this direction.

I urge the British government to use all its influence to facilitate this process. Northern Ireland proved that you can fight and talk at the same time – preconditions were not allowed to hinder progress.

Similarly, we must not lose sight of the original mission here – which was to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaeda. This consideration must remain paramount in our negotiations. There is common ground to be explored. Although the Taliban is not a homogenous group, most of its elements and Nato do not want al-Qaeda to return. Assurances can be reinforced by contingency arrangements, including the use of special forces. Talk of democracy and human rights must not become a stumbling block.

The Afghan conflict has been a bruising experience for all participants. A political settlement would do much to salvage some progress from a difficult decade. As Nato rushes towards the exit, it may also spare Afghans another vicious civil war.

The soldiers have done their bit, but can only buy time; the politicians must now show their mettle and step up to the plate.

John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon & Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee. He has been a long-time critic of the UK’s policy on Afghanistan, and was the only Conservative to vote against his government when Afghanistan was first voted upon in 2010

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