|Posted on January 12, 2012 at 7:40 PM|
With news that the Taliban is stepping up 'political efforts' to find a solution to the violence in Afghanistan, I thought I'd report an article I wrote in October 2009 about Talking to the Taliban
When I arrived in Belfast for the first time, 17 years ago next month, it seemed to me the Northern Ireland question was one that could never be solved.
The IRA was committed to its long war, the British were too strong militarily to be defeated and if, somehow, the two parts of the island ever became one, what had been a problem for the British government would become a problem for the new government of a United Ireland. The militant loyalists – who had become increasingly well armed and much bolder – would do in the Republic what the Provos had done in mainland Britain for years.
Yet not more than two years later, I stood on the Falls Road on a warm August morning as Republicans celebrated an IRA ceasefire, a 'cessation of all military activities'. It was an historic moment which signposted the way things were to develop over the next 15 years. Deals and discussions replaced bombs and bullets, and despite the spasms of those who feel there's been a sell out, Northern Ireland is largely at peace.
A former IRA commander is the deputy first minister. Fifteen years ago, British and Unionist politicians wouldn't even shake hands with him, be in the same room as him or let his voice be heard on TV or radio. They said he had 'blood on his hands'. It is a remarkable transformation.
It seems a big leap from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan, but having covered both conflicts, there are striking parallels. Eight years in, this is regarded as a war that cannot be lost because of the fire power that is available to the Americans and their allies and because of the message such a loss would send around the world. Yet in many Western countries, politicians are fighting the perception that the war cannot be won.
Bodies return to the UK weekly, six Italian deaths had Berlusconi talking about withdrawal, the French lost three in appalling accidents in bad weather, the Canadians have suffered substantial losses, and while Germany provides troops that are not involved in combat operations, the majority of people there want their armed forces home. Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai is being accused of securing victory in the presidential election by adopting the old Republican mantra 'vote early, vote often'.
Osama Bin Laden knows there are splits in the international operation. On Friday, he issued his second message in as many weeks, urging Europe to pull their troops out of Afghanistan. He taunted leaders: 'An intelligent man does not waste his money and sons for a gang of criminals in Washington. It is shameful to be part of an alliance whose leader does not care about spilling the blood of human beings by bombing villages intentionally'. The Americans know they are vulnerable to that allegation.
The new man in charge of operations in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had talked about a change in operations, to cut civilians casualties, to present the operation as more a joint mission with the Afghans, and to improve basic infrastructure even in the most remote places.
But there is a growing feeling that any military changes need to be met with diplomatic changes as well. Gordon Brown and David Miliband have talked about having discussions with the Taliban. Nothing much seems to have happened. Hamid Karzai has pleaded that any new strategy must include talking to the Taliban, even to Mullah Omar, who remains high on America's most wanted list. Low-level talks have been held between the Saudis and elements of the Taliban but nothing obvious has developed.
What has to be re-drawn is the definition of victory in Afghanistan. Hundreds of years and dozens of battles have shown that military victories are rare, so perhaps in the words of Lord Malloch-Brown, a former Foreign Office minister and United Nations deputy secretary general: 'The definition of victory in Afghanistan includes allowing elements of the Taliban back into the political settlement'. There are those who will howl and grab the headlines, calling this appeasement.
When Northern Ireland politicians were going through another of their crises, they went to South Africa to hear how they had transitioned from apartheid state to multi-party democracy, with all the baggage that entailed. Martin McGuinness told me that one of the most striking things he heard was Nelson Mandela saying: 'You make peace with your enemies not with your friends'.
Britain has already fought one long war. It can learn the lessons to avoid another.
(First published in the Scottish Review, October 2009)