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
The governor of Helmand, Asadullah Wafa, called Semple a Pakistani agent and he
was subsequently expelled. He now lives in Islamabad with his Pakistani
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org