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    South Asia
     Jan 19, 2008
Talking to the wrong people
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

(See also Part 1: Militants make a claim for talks)

KABUL - Within a few weeks, Britain's Paddy Ashdown takes up a new job as the United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan. Even with his experience in the strife-torn Balkans, he will have his work cut out in not repeating the mistakes that have been made over the past seven years since the Taliban were ousted from power.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates does not think the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is doing its job properly in Afghanistan. "It needs to do a better job in training for counter-

insurgency," he said in hard-hitting comments this week. The US solution is to throw more muscle at the problem. The Pentagon announced this week that 3,200 Marine Corps would beef up the US presence to 30,000. To date, the military option has not worked.

The British approach, and some some extent the US's, has been centered on engaging the Taliban, but without Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda-linked elements. This, too, has not worked.

Lord Ashdown's test will be to learn from this, mindful that the Taliban are the most powerful reality of today's Afghanistan.

The desire to talk
Throughout 2007, the British Embassy in Kabul under Sherard Cowper Coles made desperate overtures in southwestern Afghanistan to find a political solution with the Taliban, but without Mullah Omar. Multiple clandestine operations were launched and millions of dollars were funneled to the Taliban.

However, it all came to nothing and only caused serious differences between the two major allies - Britain and the US. And all the time the Taliban consolidated their position in the south.

The case of Irishman Michael Semple, who was acting head of the European Union mission in Kabul, is instructive. The fluent Dari-speaking Semple had spent over 18 years in Afghanistan in various capacities, including with the United Nations and as an advisor to the British Embassy in Kabul, before being expelled last month after being accused of talking to the Taliban.

His colleagues within the Western community call him a British spy; he had become close to tribes in northern Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule in the late 1990s. Semple has a Muslim Pakistani wife.

While on the EU's payroll and with development funds from the Irish Foreign Ministry, he visited restive Helmand province to see the Taliban. Using his wife's Pakistani connections and giving the impression of being Muslim - along with funds - he won some hearts and minds. People like Taliban commander Mullah Salam, now the administrator of Musa Qala district of Helmand, were thrilled to find a "blond-bearded Muslim".

Semple went to Helmand with the complete approval of the Afghan Ministry of Interior, which is supported by northern Afghan politicians. But the US and the Afghan presidential palace abhorred the idea of making Taliban friends and giving them control of parts of the province without them having to denounce Mullah Omar.

The governor of Helmand, Asadullah Wafa, called Semple a Pakistani agent and he was subsequently expelled. He now lives in Islamabad with his Pakistani in-laws.

Himouyun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Asia Times Online, "This great game style of things cannot be approved in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not a colony but a sovereign country. Everything must be done with the approval of the Afghan government."

However, Semple's plan was just a stepping stone of the broader British design in which Coles says British troops will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years.

The ambassador came up with the idea of tribal militias - arabikai - as a way to defeat the Taliban. In Afghanistan's past, when invading armies approached a town, drums were beaten to call people to oppose the enemy. The idea was that towns and villages would form their own militias to respond to such drum-beating. The idea met immediate opposition from the NATO commander, who happened to be an American.

"He [Coles] thought that the people would fight against the Taliban, but the Taliban happen to be the sons of the soil," a Western strategic analyst based in Kabul told ATol on the condition of anonymity. "The idea of arming tribal militias in Helmand is silly and will fall flat. Helmand is in the hands of anti-coalition insurgents, and we expect arrangements like arabikai to be a success?"

A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Kabul countered, "I think the Afghan government is completely in favor of arabikai and this has been successfully implemented in a few Afghan provinces."

In one British initiative they targeted Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the brother of slain Taliban strongman Mullah Dadullah, who was the new commander of the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan. The former opposition leader of the Pakistani Parliament, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was a conduit.

The initial talks were successful and several Taliban commanders in the southwest agreed on a ceasefire and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah gave his word of honor to Rehman that he would represent the Taliban in jirgagai (small tribal councils) and that he would convince Mullah Omar on the need for peace talks.

However, the "coalition of the willing" in Afghanistan had serious differences, especially the US, and while debate on the issue raged, Mullah Omar made a move. Dadullah was "sacked" from his position and he is now just a Taliban foot soldier.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Ministry of Interior warned Rehman, a self-proclaimed founding father of the Taliban, that he was now number one on al-Qaeda's hit list. Rehman's movements are now restricted because of security concerns.

Britain's backroom maneuvering has thus stalled and the Taliban are once again regrouping in the Waziristan tribal areas in Pakistan for another spring offensive.

When Ashdown arrives, he will need to think of options that include talking with the real players - Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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Militants make a claim for talks
Jan 18

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Jan 17



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