Talking to the Taliban

July 4, 2013

by Sally Ashley-Cound

The Taliban have made steps towards wanting to be seen as a legitimate political force, by setting up an operations office in Qatar on 18 June this year. The First Wednesday discussion chaired by Paddy O’Connell at the Frontline Club on 3 July asked: Is talking to the Taliban a solution?

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Dawood Azami, Frank Ledwidge, Lucy Morgan Edwards. Credit: Sally Ashley-Cound

John D McHugh, a multimedia journalist and filmmaker said that talking to the Taliban is the only option:

“Politics is the solution to war so sooner or later we’ve got to talk to these f—ckers so let’s make it sooner and lets ease the pain.”

Not long into the discussion, basic problems in communicating between different parties involved were brought up – what language would talks be held in?

Dawood Azami a journalist working for the BBC World Service replied:

“If you don’t speak the language you cannot communicate, you don’t understand the complexities of the situation… There are so many players; there’s history, ideology, nationalism, grievances…and so many other things.”

It was also unclear as to who Western negotiators would be talking to as Frank Ledwidge, former Naval reserve military intelligence officer said:

“They – whoever ‘they’ are – are the opposition [whether the officials in Qatar or local fighters on the ground] . . . the time has come to stop fighting for the sake of fighting. However we put it, what we have is existential war.”

If talks were to be held, would the office in Qatar even reflect what’s going on in the ground? Azami replied:

“It’s the other way around. People on the ground have control over people in in Doha. . . . They don’t control the fighters, the commanders. The commanders have more power than those in the Doha office.”

McHugh said that there is a difference between “those who claim to be in command and those who are doing the nasty… fighting and killing – the disconnect is huge. . . . There are people in Qatar that are saying they can do X, Y and Z, and I’m not convinced that they can at all.”

An Afghan audience member added:

“People in Afghanistan… now believe this is a conspiracy. A game. The Americans are leaving, that we’re going to be left alone; who knows what happens. We’re going to be handed over to the Pakistani government. . . . We need more transparency.”

McHugh reiterated that there was concern over the lack of transparency in talks as a friend on the ground had told him:

“The lack of transparency is the biggest fear. He said ‘we don’t know what’s being talked about’. . . .  There’s a fear that concessions are going to be made.”

Lucy Morgan Edwards, author and researcher at Exeter University agreed:

“Talks, if they did happen are likely to happen behind closed doors and run by foreigners. I believe they should be run by Afghans.”

However any talks taking place could seem halfhearted, with the knowledge that the West will be pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014.

Ledwidge felt that the British have no say at all:

“People pulling the strings here are not British diplomats – nobody trusts us and we have no influence anyway. The US and Pakistan, they’re the players here.”

McHugh continued:

“We [the West] look like people who are trying to get out and will talk to pretty much anyone who offers a way of getting out and saving face.”

A member of the audience, who had served with Ledwidge in Iraq, suggested the West needs to be smarter in the way they use military force alongside talks:

“There is a much more fluid situation . . . where people are quite willing to pursue talking and at the same time to apply military pressure and to very skillfully weave those two things together. . . . Using the violence in order to further the talks.  The Taliban are more skilled at doing this because, quite frankly, they’ve had more practice.”

O’Connell asked what the panel thought should, or would happen to bring about successful talks.

Ledwidge said that the most successful peace conference would involve “all parties, all surrounding countries, all interested nations without preconditions and you talk to whoever will talk back.”

McHugh added:

“If Pakistan are not involved you’ve no hope.”

Azami finished by saying:

“Afghanistan has been a battlefield for other countries adventures… They deserve peace and the rest of the world should help them.”

Watch the full discussion here: