Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Talking to the Taliban: A British perspective

Kate Clark 12 min

The deputy commander of ISAF and most senior British soldier in Afghanistan, General Nick Carter, has told The Guardian that, ‘the west should have tried talking to the Taliban a decade ago, after they had just been toppled from power’. AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, who witnessed many of the events of that time, not just the fall of the Taleban but the first stirrings of uprising, says the problem was not that the Taleban were excluded from the Bonn Conference in 2001, or from subsequent discussions on the future of the country, but that they were actively persecuted. Clark also looks at General Carter’s assessment for the post-2014 years: the Taleban will not be able to ‘threaten’ central government, but will control parts of the country and the war is set to continue. 

Britain was a centrally involved, albeit very junior, partner in the US military operation which led to the swift ousting of the Taleban in the autumn of 2001. The British army subsequently led the first ISAF mission in Kabul. The USA called all the shots, but of all the other foreign players, Britain and also the United Nations, had strong voices at this time and some means of influencing decisions on Afghanistan.

The current deputy commander of ISAF, General Carter, who will be the next head of the British army, has made what probably seemed a brave decision (given the money and British lives lost in the last decade), to admit to The Guardian that mistakes were made early on in the intervention:

Back in 2002, the Taliban were on the run. I think that at that stage, if we had been very prescient, we might have spotted that a final political solution to what started in 2001, from our perspective, would have involved getting all Afghans to sit at the table and talk about their future.’ Acknowledging that it was ‘easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight’, Carter added: ‘The problems that we have been encountering over the period since then are essentially political problems, and political problems are only ever solved by people talking to each other.

Yet it was not the lack of talking which was the problem in the early years of the intervention, but the hounding of senior and mid-level commanders, when they were trying to go home and live peaceably. There were many attempts at surrender, most importantly on 5 December 2001 when the Taleban defence minister, Mullah Obaidullah, representing a group of some of the most senior Taleban(1) and allegedly acting with Mullah Omar’s permission, delivered a letter to Hamed Karzai. He had just been selected by the Bonn Conference as Afghanistan’s interim leader and was then travelling from Uruzgan to Kandahar. This letter, reported Anand Gopal, acknowledged the Islamic Emirate had no chance of surviving and accepted Karzai’s leadership. The Taleban’s main request, he said, was ‘to be given immunity from arrest in exchange for agreeing to abstain from political life.’

There was also an attempt (possibly Pakistani-sponsored) at establishing a Taleban political party in Pakistan that signalled it was ready to play in the new political system.(2)

As Alex Strick von Linschoten, author of An Enemy We Created told The Guardian, ‘There would not have been too much negotiating to be done, even, in 2001 or 2002, because the Taliban’s senior leadership made their approaches in a conciliatory manner, acknowledging the new order in the country.’ However, the attempts foundered on the implacable hostility of the US and old Afghan rivals who were now in power and later on, because the Kabul government lacked interest in dealing with a ‘spent force’.

Despite attempts to reconcile, senior and mid-level Taleban were hounded, a nasty, short-sighted, hubristic tactic which sowed the first seeds of insurgency. US Special Operations Forces and the CIA actively pursued what they called ‘Taleban remnants’. They allowed themselves to become pawns in old tribal and factional quarrels, targeting the enemies of their new Afghan allies. They created a healthy bounty hunters’ market, paying dollars to those who handed in Taleban or indeed ordinary Afghans who could be presented as such. Taleban were double crossed, handed over after being promised protection (such as the Taleban deputy head of Intelligence, Abdul Haq Waseq, see here for details) and harassed in their homes. Both US and Afghan forces tortured detainees. At least three men were killed in Bagram.(3) In Kandahar, the US’ new allies were the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai, and his commanders, who had old scores to settle with the Taleban. Relatives and tribesmen of Taleban commanders were attacked, report van Linschoten and Kuehn: ‘entire tribes – the Ishaqzai in Maiwand, a district west of Kandahar City, for example – were systematically targeted and denounced as Taleban.’

Gopal also details many individual cases of abuses. Mullah Abdul Razziq Baluch, an imam in Panjwayi, was arrested by the NDS commander and Sherzai ally, Karam, and killed in detention, his bruised and battered body handed back to his family. Karam also arrested and tortured Mullah Ahmad Shah, a former Taleban commander who had surrendered. He was released and re-arrested three times, his family forced to sell their livestock to pay bribes to get him out; Shah finally fled to Pakistan. He became a Taleban judge, his brothers commanders in the insurgency.(4) Hezb-e Islami cadres were also at risk in those early days. Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law of party leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, ‘disappeared’ in Islamabad in 2002, along with his driver, Gul Rahman. He had been captured by US agents and Pakistani security forces and secretly rendered to Afghanistan, where he was, says the Open Society Foundations’ monumental report on the CIA’s global torture and rendition program ‘held in CIA custody in [a black site prison called] the Salt Pit for six months; Baheer reports being forced to sleep naked on concrete, being hung naked for hours on end and being tied to a chair while U.S. interrogators sat on him.’

He was finally released from Bagram in May 2008. His driver, Gul Rahman, did not survive CIA custody; he froze to death in the Salt Pit. No-one was prosecuted for his killing.

In Kabul, police and NDS, then controlled by Shura-ye Nizar arrested scores of members of their old rivals Hezb-e Islami. Wahidullah Sabawun (now one of the president’s advisors on tribal affairs and leader of the legal, registered party) was detained, as were Juma Khan Hamdard and Delbar Jan Arman (now governors of Paktia and Kunar, respectively) and the late Bashir Baghlani (who went on to become governor of Farah). A defence ministry official accused the four men of having been sent by Hekmatyar to sabotage the new government, but it was clear this was just a blatant attempt to settle old scores. The Hezb-e Islami cadres got out fairly swiftly after media reporting and the party slowly managed to rehabilitate itself and gradually found its place in the new administration, eventually also making its way into parliament.

The Taleban, cast as devils incarnate, faired less well. A few senior Taleban with good personal contacts managed to reconcile with the new government and get security guarantees. Most, finding no place to live in peace after the fall of their regime, were forced to flee to Pakistan. Mullah Omar and Mullah Dadullah issued calls for jihad in early 2003. They were chilling (they were accompanied by the nasty murder of the ICRC engineer, Ricardo Munguia, in Uruzgan on the orders of Dadullah, in March 2003), but they fell on stony ground. It should be stressed how weirdly out of key they were with the country’s mood. It is difficult for those who were not in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 to realise how thorough, complete and popular the Taleban defeat was. It was not just military, but political and emotional. Most Taleban accepted their world had changed.

Most Afghans welcomed the new order, especially as they saw it as representing an end to the long civil war. That belief that peace had finally come meant that initially people were incredibly patient with US-caused civilian casualties, seeing them as the last painful deaths of the conflict.

Afghans generally welcomed foreign forces: the biggest cheer at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga was not for Hamed Karzai or former king Muhammad Zaher Shah, but the first commander of ISAF, the British general John McColl.

Indeed, there was a consistent demand from Afghans for ISAF to spread to their areas. Believing the US message of human rights and peace, they thought the foreign forces would surely help curb or get rid of the many commanders who had grabbed power locally on the coat-tails of the US bombing and the power vacuum it created. They were sadly misguided. In a survey of PRTs in 2004, with the honourable exception of the British in Mazar, I found them sticking doggedly to aid, building schools and digging wells and ignoring insecurity. At best, they showed no interest in what they dismissed as ‘green on green’ conflicts and, at worse, allied themselves with local strongmen regardless of their record of abusing the population because this neutralised the threat to themselves.

At that time, the international powers – the US, the UK and others, including the UN – were feared and respected by all sides. The commanders who had seized power across the country in 2001 expected to be forced to disarm and go home. Yet the international powers avoided antagonising even the smallest of commanders for fear of rocking the boat and causing instability.(5) Look, for example, at one small decision by the British army which had major political consequences: the Bonn Accords stipulated that Kabul should be demilitarised.

When I interviewed the Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesman in the first weeks of 2002, he assumed the new British ISAF would force the Shura-ye Nizar and Ittihad-e Islami factions of the Northern Alliance, which had captured Kabul in November 2001, to withdraw. It was never done. According to a member of British military intelligence, the then defence minister General Fahim, threatened unrest and the British backed off. He had successfully called the British bluff and the factional forces which had captured Kabul were allowed to re-name themselves as police and army, getting new uniforms and government salaries.(6)

The original sin of the intervention was supporting one side in a civil war come what may and not allowing the defeated side to go home in peace. (All this, of course, was masked by the US ‘anti-terrorist’ agenda.) Even so, it took a lot of time and disappointments for the insurgency to get off the ground.

For a long time, unhappiness with the new order showed itself in the demand to be ‘included’ in government, rather than any desire to overthrow it. No-one spoke about even the possibility of the Taleban coming back to power, including individual Taleban themselves.

Eventually, as multiple sources from different parts of the country (7) relate, it was corrupt or predatory behaviour by state actors or brutal actions by foreign forces which created the initial support for the Taleban. A typical account came from a graduate in his twenties (and confirmed by other interviewees, including Afghan NGO workers) of how Sayedabad, now one of the most violent districts in Wardak province came to accept the Taleban, despite years of its people telling them to take their ‘jihad’ elsewhere:

After 2001, in our province, people were very optimistic that peace and stability would come and a proper government that would care about the people. In the first one or two years, they were waiting, but it didn’t happen. Instead, there is a corrupt and inefficient government which is indifferent to the people and it gained momentum. Optimism was slowly replaced by disappointment – specifically in our district. Imagine: a district police chief was assigned by Kabul – and the police under him were robbers. They plundered and looted and raided people’s houses. So what happens next? When people saw those things that were done by the police chief, they became angry and, to take revenge, they stood against him and his group. The Taleban used this opportunity, grabbed it, they saw a community angered by the government and they attacked the district headquarters. Our district is all Taleban now. The people support them.

The sense of disillusionment he expressed in the foreign forces was also common:

I want to add that disappointment started with the government and it was exacerbated by the government and the Americans, and now there are even stronger reasons to be unhappy about the current situation. For example, in our area, Americans have made their bases in people’s houses. They’ve blocked the road for 5000 houses and blocked the irrigation system for a large agricultural area and water for the mosque. And they’ve started cutting down trees on both sides of the road – because they fear ambushes. People used to think foreign forces had come here to ease life and help the people – but their presence is a problem. They create support for the Taliban.

One other detail of history should not be overlooked. In Afghanistan in 2001, the Taleban were finished as a credible fighting or political force, but across the border, the view was very different.

In February 2003, I drove from Islamabad to Peshawar and on up to North Waziristan and the Afghan border. Ordinary Pakistanis and government officials alike believed that, as I reported at the time, ‘the Taliban were heroes and victims of American imperialism’. In Peshawar, a religious right wing alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), had just won provincial elections in protest at the US attack on Afghanistan. In Karachi, 70,000 people had just rallied, holding up posters of Osama Bin Laden as hero and George Bush portrayed as Hitler. In the capital of North Waziristan, Miram Shah, the government agent, who is the representative of the Islamabad government in a tribal area, lectured me on Islam, counting off the five pillars of the religion; he included jihad, instead of zakat (alms) and was not pleased when I pointed out his error. Even liberal Pakistanis believed Afghans were now suffering under the yoke of foreigners. For someone who had spent time across the border, the narrative was completely alien – and a shock to hear.

The Taleban fight may well have kicked off because of wrongs committed inside Afghanistan, but those who fled found a safe haven across the border and a narrative of oppression and resistance already fully formed. That safe haven and Pakistan’s backing has helped forge an insurgency which, today, is complex, well-funded and well-armed. It is also one which commits war crimes daily – killing civilians with recklessness or intention and where, this year, foreign jihadists are fighting in increasing numbers.

General Carter is right to say it would have been easier to speak to the Taleban earlier – in 2002 or indeed 2004, in 2009/10 instead of the surge, or even in 2012 when the Qatar office was first mooted and international forces had yet to start withdrawing. There are still pragmatic members of the movement who would prefer a political settlement to trying to fight their way to power again, especially given that after 2014, their narrative of jihad will founder in intra-Afghan bloodletting. Even after the debacle of the opening of the Qatar office, one would still have to concur with his hope for a negotiated end to the conflict.

Carter believes Afghan institutions and forces are now sustainable – as long as the US and its allies come through on promises of financial and military support over the next few years – and indeed that this strength may persuade the Taleban to negotiate. Even if talks do not produce a negotiated end to the conflict, he says he is positive about the future. Yet his optimism actually consists of only the bleak hope of continuing conflict which the Taleban would not win – or lose:

The strength of the insurgency meant Kabul would not control all of the country for some years to come, said Carter, who previously described Afghanistan’s likely post-2014 situation as ‘stable instability’… ‘There will be parts of Afghanistan which will not necessarily be as closely linked to central government as others … there will therefore be some local political solutions which won’t in any way threaten central government,’ Carter said. ‘That phenomenon may go on for a while.’

Note Carter’s chilling phrase, ‘local political solutions’ which looks like a euphemism for Taleban or militia control of some parts of the country. The British general may be wrong on his 2002 history, yet his sense of how talks and the war could proceed may be realistic. They are a welcome variation on the relentlessly cheerful NATO and US narrative of the war. Even so, reading his words strike a blow to the heart; it is a despondent assessment of the tail end of Britain’s fourth military foray into Afghanistan.  

(1) They included Tayyeb Agha, now head of the Qatar office, Sayed Muhammad Haqqani, former ambassador to Pakistan, senior commander, Mullah Baradar who would go on to become Mullah Omar’s deputy before being jailed by the Pakistanis in 2010 and Mullah Razaq, Taleban interior minister.

(2) For more detail on this see AAN’s Thomas Ruttig’s 2010 paper, The Ex-Taleban on the High Peace Council: A New Role for the Khuddam ul-Furqan?

(3) They were Gul Rahman who is discussed in this piece, Dilawar, aged 22, a taxi driver from Khost who died on December 10, 2002, according to the death certificated issued by a military pathologist, (and obtained by the New York Times) from “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease,” and Mullah Habibullah, who was about 30 years and from Uruzgan, who died on December 3, 2002. A military spokesman at Bagram told the New York Times that Mullah Habibullah’s death was ruled a homicide by a military pathologist, the cause being “pulmonary embolism [blood clot in the lungs] due to blunt force injury to the legs.” For these two cases, see Carlotta Gall, ‘U.S. Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody’ New York Times 4 March 2003. Also see Human rights Watch “Enduring Freedom”: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan 

(4) A similar development happened in the Afghan southeast where the tribes had organised the overthrow the Taleban before even Kabul fell. US troops were particularly heavy-handed in Zurmat, a district close to the provincial capital of Gardez and known as ‘Little Kandahar’ for its high representation in the Taleban leadership. Taleban leaders there sat at home after the collapse of their retime, tacitly reaching out to Kabul. In March 2003, the US military, CIA paramilitaries, NATO and Afghan forces launched Operation Anaconda against resisting Taleban commanders from the Haqqani and Mansur networks and their al Qaida allies in the Shahikot mountains in the southwest of the district. The US ‘won’ this final battle of the 2001 intervention, but also destroyed the four villages at the foot of the Shahikot mountains, forcing the inhabitants to leave for Pakistan. There were also increasing detentions of those Zurmat Taleban who had been sitting at home who were often also well-educated religious scholars and respected community leaders were subject to repeated arrest. Many communities in Zurmat opted for the Taleban side. See: Thomas Ruttig, ‘Loya Paktia’s Insurgency: The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity in the Taliban Universe’ in Antonio Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, Columbia, 2009. Also AAN reporting, 2001 Ten Years on (3): The fall of Loya Paktia and why the US preferred warlords 

(5) As the UN Secretary General’s special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi put it so memorably in 2002, accountability for war crimes had to take ‘second place to peace and stability’. He was speaking in reference to several hundred Taleban prisoners of war who were killed or allowed to die in containers in Jawzjan while under the control of Junbesh forces in November 2002. For a nuanced and compelling account of these and other facets of the debate on transitional justice, see AAN’s major new report, ‘Tell Us How This Ends. Transitional Justice and Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan’

6) Threats by mujahedin leaders to ‘go back to the mountains’ were successfully repeated and led to delays in the return of the former King and, even longer, his ambitious grandson Prince Mustapha, as well as their taking control over the June 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga over the heads of the general mass of (partially elected) representatives (see AAN reporting here).

(7) Among many others, see S. Ladbury and Cooperation for Peace and Unity (Afghanistan) (CPAU), Testing Hypotheses on Radicalisation in Afghanistan: Why Do Men Join the Taliban and Hizb-i Islami? (Kabul: Department for International Development, 2009). F. Ledwidge, ‘Justice and Counter Insurgency in Afghanistan: A Missing Link’, RUSI Journal 154(1)(February 2009), A. Wilder and G. Stuart, ‘Money Can’t Buy American Love’, Foreign Policy, 1 December 2009; M. van Biljert, ‘Unruly Commanders and Violent Power Struggles’ and G. Smith, ‘What Kandahar’s Taliban Say’, both in in A. Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (New York/Chichester: Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2009), p. 160; also A. Giustozzi and C. Reuter, The Northern Front: The Afghan Insurgency Spreading beyond the Pashtuns, AAN, 24 June 2010. I also looked into the roots of the insurgency for a BBC radio documentary made just before the British army deployed to Helmand in 2006 and heard accusations of atrocities by the provincial government which, interviewees said, had partly created a resistance.


General Nick Carter ISAF reconciliation Taleban UK