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Wed. February 21, 2024
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Time to talk to the Taliban?
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Last week was a difficult one for U.K. forces in Afghanistan. British troops suffered nine casualties in the space of 10 days, including the loss of their first female soldier. This brought the total British casualties in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict in November 2001, to 106. These losses came just days after an announcement by British Defense Secretary Des Browne that 230 additional British troops would be sent to Afghanistan. Browne insisted that this was not a response to deteriorating security and instead cited the need to deliver training to Afghan national security forces and to increase the capacity of U.K. forces to deliver the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. Browne stressed that the Taliban was on the retreat, but detailed concerns that they had shifted tactics from insurgency towards terrorism, saying they were “intimidating Afghan communities, coercing the vulnerable into becoming suicide bombers and carrying out brutal and indiscriminate attacks on the international community.” Other commentators paint an even more worrying picture. An Oxfam report published in February, for example, argues that the existing efforts to promote peace are not working and cites U.N. figures detailing a 20-30 per cent increase in attacks, bombings and violent incidents in 2007 as compared to 2006. The U.K. Government’s decision to increase troops in Afghanistan, to an all-time high of over 8,000, suggests that NATO is struggling to deal with the insurgency. It appears, then, that a change of approach is needed before security can be achieved. One such idea was proposed last week by the backbench opposition Conservative MP, Adam Holloway, who went against his party’s line to argue for negotiations with the Taliban. Speaking in a House of Commons debate on Helmand Province, Mr. Holloway, a member of the Parliamentary Defense Select Committee and a former soldier and war correspondent for the Sunday Times, argued that it was time “to make a deal with the Taliban”. He told MPs that the goal of destroying the Taliban was not possible and should be dropped in favor of peace talks with the country’s former rulers. The idea of negotiation is likely to repulse many, at least initially. The Taliban regime that held much of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 was widely condemned for its mistreatment of women, in particular for restrictions on access to education and healthcare. Moreover, stories of atrocities carried out by the Taliban during the current conflict, such as the hanging of two decorators who had been hired to re-paint a school, have served to harden opinion in the West against the Taliban. But Mr. Holloway’s arguments remain compelling. If he is right, and the Taliban cannot be defeated, then negotiation is surely inevitable at some point. In this scenario it must be a case of “the sooner the better”, given that it should mean reducing the future number of NATO and Afghani civilian casualties. A picture of what defeat for the Taliban would look like also remains unclear. Will an Afghanistan in which the Taliban surrender actually look that different to one in which peace is achieved by negotiation? However successful the NATO mission, it will not entirely remove Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan. In addition, any deal would be heavily weighted against the Taliban. If we believe, as Browne does, that the Taliban are on the retreat, then they are hardly in a position to pursue significant concessions. Striking a deal now could save years of instability and conflict at little cost. Furthermore, history is on the side of negotiation. It was only once Britain submitted to negotiating with the IRA that progress began to be made, and now the two opposing factions in Northern Ireland sit together peacefully in their own Assembly. Mr. Holloway made this same argument in his speech, telling the Commons that talks had been necessary “in every other insurgency historically”. Opening lines of communication does not mean surrendering to the Taliban; it does not even mean significant concessions will be made. It may, however, move a conflict that is undermining perceptions of the U.K. in the Muslim world, particularly because of its association with the war in Iraq, closer to a resolution. How can we know whether a deal can be struck, one that favors the goals of the NATO coalition and Afghan Government, unless we talk to the Taliban? Leigh Marshall is a London-based writer and assistant editor with International Affairs Forum

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