Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

How to end the war in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters in Ghazni, Afghanistan
Winning over low-level Taliban fighters is a key plank of the new strategy

Guest columnist Ahmed Rashid says talking to the Taliban could be the only way to end the war in Afghanistan.

The London conference on Afghanistan was being billed as a dud - hastily conceived, under prepared and potentially a political face-saver for two unpopular leaders, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.

Instead the conference has united the international community for a further commitment to Afghanistan's future - albeit for a shortened period.

Even more significant, there is broad agreement that talking to the Taliban is the only way to bring the insurgency to an end.

No longer are the US, Nato or Afghanistan's neighbours talking about militarily defeating the Taliban, rebuilding the country from top to bottom or promoting democracy.

Nato is perceived to be 'not winning' or at best stalemated in the war against the Taliban

Instead there is a single purpose in mind - how to provide sufficient security for development while at the same time allowing foreign forces to leave.

Six months ago major stakeholders such as Russia, India and Iran were against such a strategy - now no longer.


The turnaround has happened not because Nato is winning, but because Nato is perceived to be "not winning" or at best in a stalemate in the war against the Taliban.

London conference on Afghanistan
The meeting brought most of the main players together

What every country fears in an even more prolonged conflict is a collapse of will at home (in Europe and the US) and in Kabul to resist the Taliban.

Talk and fight is the new mantra.

The turnaround was so astonishing that the conference communiqué was swiftly overtaken by reports that Kai Eide, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, had already met with Taliban leaders in Dubai on 8 January.

UN officials tell me the report was false and that Mr Eide was in New York at the time.

The London conference clearly stipulates that any talks will be led by the Afghan government, which has already been quietly talking to Taliban representatives through the good offices of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are now demanding that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar give a clear commitment in writing that he is breaking with al-Qaeda - something the Taliban have only hinted at in several of their communiqués.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has had close relations with the Afghan Taliban, since they were given sanctuary by Pakistan's military regime after their defeat in 2001.

The ISI are the gate-keepers for access to most Taliban leaders, giving it considerable clout in any future negotiations - something that is resented by the Kabul regime and some Taliban.

However there has also been considerable Western contact with the Taliban.


According to my last count and information, diplomats or intelligence agents from Britain, Norway and Germany as well as several humanitarian agencies such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have met with Taliban officials either in Pakistan or Afghanistan over the past 12 months.

Afghan soldiers
Afghan troops are to take over security responsibilities

For humanitarian agencies it has been a question of making sure that their staff are not attacked, persuading the Taliban to allow medical and food distribution and immunisation campaigns to be carried out in areas they control.

Humanitarian agencies are not holding peace talks with the Taliban but trying to improve the quality of life for ordinary Afghans no matter where or who they are.

The UN has been particularly disturbed as to why the Taliban are now targeting its offices and killing UN personnel in both Pakistan and Afghanistan - something they have never done since they appeared in 1994.

There is widespread suspicion that such attacks have been launched by al-Qaeda and its allies, rather than the real Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

For European states contacts with the Taliban have been limited to trying to discover where their nationals are - nationals who may have trained or fought with al-Qaeda or the Taliban and are about to launch suicide attacks in their home countries.

The London conference was also all about making it clear that the West's intensive commitment to Afghanistan is going to be short-lived.

In 18 months US troops will start handing over responsibility to the Afghan army, province by province, and start withdrawing.

Tough call

Some European contingents are likely to make an even quicker dash for the exit.

Although there will be substantial long term Western funding for building Afghan security forces and economic development, the Afghans will essentially be on their own after 10 years of hand-feeding by the West.

Hamid Karzai
Mr Karzai has to get Afghans to take charge of the country

It will be a tough call because the 30-year-long war has bred a kind of dependency among the Afghans - whether as refugees or as free citizens - that prevents their leaders taking real responsibility.

The Afghan government does not see the need for accountability because the Western donor community is blamed and always held accountable and culpable for all short-comings, be it too few troops or corruption.

Despite the London conference rhetoric of "Afghan ownership" of the peace and development process, the last nine years has still not created real ownership for the Afghans.

There is still no semblance of a working Afghan state with basic governance institutions such as a functioning bureaucracy, judiciary and police.

Nato's job in this surge of commitment is to make sure that the Afghans do not just increase their dependency on the West, but actually take charge, become responsible and make themselves accountable for their actions.

President Karzai should realise this is a tougher job than talking to the Taliban.

This debate is now closed. The following are a selection of your comments:

I think that the situation in Afghanistan is growing ever more complicated day by day.
M Naim, Pakistan

I think India is creating problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Why do they have five consulate offices in Afghanistan when there is hardly any Indian living there? The Indian role should be limited and if possible their all the offices should be closed immediately for the betterment of the region.
Babar, Bangladesh

Unless Pakistan, India and Iran reduce their undue influence in Afghanistan I do not think any major breakthrough will occur in the near future. Those countries seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan should remember the Afghan people. They should not forget that Afghanistan is for Afghan people, governed by Afghan people for Afghan people. Only then can peace prevail in this country.
Hamesh, India

After all the weeping from those who suffered at the hands of the Taliban, after all the soldiers who travelled so far to fight for what was right, after so many lives lost Western governments are now saying that Afghanistan is a failed mission and that negotiations with the Taliban are the only way forward. The reason the Taliban have not been defeated is because there has not been a complete effort to break them.
Regina, Canada

Even if an agreement is concluded, what about Pakistani Taliban? The US, the Europeans and even Hamid Karzai ignore the fact that Taliban do not distinguish between the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban. They see themselves as a single entity fighting occupying forces.
Ashfaq Sadiq, Norway

Afghanistan's problem is threefold. Firstly, we Afghans are at fault for not being able to bridge our differences without bloodshed dating back to when the Soviets left in defeat. Secondly, the Western powers are at fault for thinking Afghans are going to sit idly by and let Nato roam freely and act as occupiers under the pretext of seeking terrorists. Thirdly, whatever happened to the billions of dollars that were supposed to help in rebuilding the country and its infrastructure? What Afghanistan needs today is a clearly defined future that would give hope to the people and an alternative to the Taliban.
Salem Mojadidi, Saudi Arabia

I agree with Mr Rashid that the only way to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan is through peace talks with the Taliban. We hope that the international community will help Afghan people solve their own problems
Mohammad Sarwar Ahmadzai , Afghanistan

Any handover of security duties to Afghan forces will prove fruitless, because if well-trained US/Nato troops have failed to overwhelm the Taliban, how will Afghan forces succeed?
Sajjad Shaukat, Pakistan

The big mistake the US and Europe made in Afghanistan was to install a weak leader. Afghanistan is a third world country where almost 80% of the people are uneducated. We need a strong leader to implement the law in the country, who is respected and feared by his cabinet. If we have a dictator we would have finished off the Taliban within six months.
M Hashmi, Afghanistan

Leaving Afghanistan without the heads of Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Ayman Al-Zawahri is accepting total defeat for the West and a historical victory for the jihadis.
Sunil Jatkar, USA

Tell us something new BBC. Ahmed Rashid and his ilk will never stop writing distorted and biased versions of news stories from South Asia, and the whole world in general. The world would never have had witnessed a war on terror was it not for the continued support of occupied Palestine by the western world. If you have an iota of decency left inside your psuedo-glorified mentalities, you will research and report the facts as they are and not as how you'd like them to be.
Akbar Khan, Pakistan

I have a lot of respect for Ahmed Rashid, a highly knowledgeable and respected Pakistani journalist. He has distilled the essence of what it takes to get out of Afghanistan - forget about militarily defeating the Taliban, rebuilding the country from top to bottom or promoting democracy, good governance, women's rights, rule of law or any other current fad of the international development community. Instead find a way to "provide sufficient security for development while at the same time allowing foreign forces to leave". This means bringing the "Taliban" back into Afghan politics. It was as true nine years ago as it is today. I know, I was there.
Eric Yendall, Canada.

I think the writing has been on the wall for sometime about the US attempt to exit from Afghanistan in fairly short order. Unfortunately for US, I don't think the Taliban have any time table or sense of urgency to talk with the Karazi govt or the US, as long as they believe they can defeat or at least tire the US out of Afghanistan. It'll be a very testing time for US and Nato forces this year and next, if they choose to stay that long. The more likely scenario is that they will probably try the strategy of finding and leaving proxies in the region, but such proxies will not be able to resist the Taliban for long.
Riaz Haq, USA

It is good decision by the US, Europe and the government of Afghanistan that to talk with the Taliban and all credit goes to President Hamid Karzai who has made a sincere effort to save his country and his people from more war and misery. It is a fact that every dispute can be solved through negotiation - quiet calm deliberation does indeed disentangle every knot.
Sajjad Ali Cube, Pakistan

I think the solution to the Afghan situation is trade. As is said "An empty mind is a devil's lair", this seems to be holding good in Afghanistan. The solution to this is to promote trade with neighbouring countries like Iran, India and the Russian Federation. All this I guess will take time but will certainly help turn the situation in this country. Lastly I believe that (not because I am an Indian) India's involvement in Afghanistan by enhancing trade is very crucial to its self-sufficiency and freedom from fanaticism.
Akshay, India

Regional instability should be the top priority of the international community. Indian involvement in the Afghanistan is boosting this war. Therefore their presence in Afghanistan must be watched and the Afghan army should not be trained by Indian forces because they might create another hurdle for Pakistan in future. Recently, Nato has said that it will train Pakistani mid-level security personnel. That too is a good decision as they would then be better able to perform in future - particularly when fighting any terror activity.
Waqarabro, Pakistan

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