/ 16 February 2008

We can persuade Taliban to be peaceful, says aid worker

Two-thirds of the Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan can be persuaded to abandon violence, according to a British aid worker expelled from the country for opening talks with some of those allied to the militant group.

Michael Semple, a United Nations official arrested by the Afghan government on Christmas Day last year, said he was confident that most Taliban-linked insurgents could be absorbed into Afghanistan’s reconciliation process.

In his first interview with a British news organisation since he was forced to leave Afghanistan by the government of President Hamid Karzai, Semple defended his role in talking to elements linked to the Taliban. Until 2003 he had been a senior political adviser to the British embassy in Kabul.

Semple told the Guardian that he and the European Union official Mervyn Patterson, who was also expelled, were victims of local politics. He said a local leader in Helmand province falsely blamed them for talking to what he described as ”one of the irreconcilables” in the conflict. They had, he said, opened no such channel to al-Qaeda-linked Taliban.

”There is a critical difference between what is discreet and what is covert,” Semple said. ”What we were doing was simply discreet because that was what was required. But it was totally in line with official policy to bring people in from the cold.”

Describing the process of wooing Taliban-linked elements away from the insurgency, he cited the example of a leader in Helmand named Mullah Mamuk, whose regional enemies told western forces in 2001 that he was a terrorist, leading to his appearing on a most wanted poster.

”So naturally Mamuk goes to the Taliban to feel safe and takes those men he commands who are loyal to him with him, shows Taliban commanders the poster and says ‘It looks like I am now with you,’ Semple said.

”The authorities simply got the wrong guy and drove him into the Taliban’s hands. Now he is currently fighting against the British in Helmand but in my opinion local leaders like Mamuk can be won back over again.” Semple advocated creating a ”network of patronage” to lure men like Mamuk away from the Taliban.

”It’s worth remembering there are an awful lot of Mullah Mamuks out there who can easily switch sides away from the Taliban and that is why I firmly believe that with good management you could break two-thirds of the insurgents away from those irreconcilables,” he said. He added that some of those arrested and taken to Guantánamo Bay during the early period of the United States-led invasion had switched sides to the Karzai government.

”Take Haji Naeem Kochi, someone I have known for a very long time in Afghanistan. After 9/11 and the invasion he ended up doing time in Guantánamo Bay,” Semple said.

”When he came back … I met up with him. The first thing I asked him was did he learn any English and he replied: ‘Yes, but all I learned was sit up and sit down from the American guards.’ Yet despite doing time in Guantánamo he is now a member of the peace commission aimed at reconciling all Afghans.”

Semple described the controversy that led to his expulsion as ”totally manufactured” by a local political leader jealously guarding resources given to him by the central government. This leader feared for his power base if ex-insurgents and former Taliban were brought into the peace process, Semple said.

”We were victims of local politics initially and being seen to take on the foreigners — in this case us — is seen as very popular in many places in Afghanistan. We were soft targets and the whole thing was spun well by him.”

He drew a comparison between what he and Patterson were seeking to achieve in Helmand and what the US had done in Anbar province in Iraq, where American forces opened talks with Sunni insurgents which resulted in setbacks for al-Qaeda.

”There are many people who served with the Taliban regime who are now well-placed inside the Karzai regime or else are pillars of Afghan society. They are now living at peace with [it] even if they are critical of it, which is their right,” he said. ”Our mandate was to support the government’s reconciliation process — that’s what we were doing in Helmand before Christmas. There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency. There isn’t a serious actor in Afghanistan who says the only way forward is to fight your way out.” – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008