Foreign Secretary William Hague says British troops in Afghanistan will have withdrawn from any combat role within five years. Concerns about the costly NATO-led Afghan mission have mounted as governments slash spending to rein in budget deficits, and as the death toll has risen. June was the deadliest month for foreign troops in the nine-year conflict.
“The prime minister is very clear … that there will not be British troops in a combat role, or significant numbers, in Afghanistan, in five years time,” Hague told parliament, adding that he wanted Afghan security forces to assume more responsibility within that timeframe.
He said that timeline was internationally agreed at the meeting of the Group of Eight leaders in Canada last month, Reuters reports. Hague told BBC radio last week that Afghanistan should be able to stand alone by 2014. Defence Secretary Liam Fox last month told a Washington thinktank that Britain, which has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, should not leave before “the job is finished” and premature withdrawal would be a betrayal of sacrifices made by the army.
Like Hague, he also said that Afghanistan, where foreign and Afghan troops are fighting a Taliban insurgency, should take increasing responsibility for its own security by 2015; but his comments suggested a more open-ended campaign.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Hague appear to be urging a more definite timeline for withdrawal, prompting media speculation of a division over strategy. Ministers have denied any split.
Meanwhile, former Taliban governor turned Afghan government official dismissed the peace process as a “joke,” saying Afghanistan cannot seek peace with the insurgents only by trying to woo their rank and file. “Peace cannot come to Afghanistan through the junior Taliban,” the 59-year-old Mullah Abdul Salaam told Reuters in an interview in Kabul.
“This will bear no fruit if the Taliban leaders are not involved and listened to. The whole peace process that the government and the world wants to pursue is a joke … a waste of time and money.” To many observers, the US-led effort to destroy the Taliban and establish a stable government is already a monumental waste of time and money.
Nearly nine years after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda figures are still at large, the Taliban insurgency is raging and there is widespread loathing both for foreign forces and an Afghan government largely seen as corrupt or incapable. Western governments want out and are training Afghan forces to replace them, but perhaps worried they will not be able to cope, President Hamid Karzai is making peace overtures to the Taliban.
The proposals include offering an amnesty and reintegration to foot soldiers who agree to accept Afghanistan’s constitution, removing the names of certain leaders from a UN blacklist, and securing sanctuary in a friendly Muslim nation for others. But these sort of modest steps simply don’t appeal to the Taliban, Salaam said. The bottom-line is they believe they are winning.
The movement’s leadership, based in the Pakistan border city of Quetta, still calls the shots, Salaam said, and has organised war plans, unity and “obedience in hierarchy” — a reference to perceived differences between Afghan and Western officials. Religious schools in Pakistan were producing suicide bombers in abundance for carrying out low-cost attacks against Afghan and foreign forces, he added, while it was costing the West billions to fund the conflict.
Salaam is among only a handful of ex-Taliban officials to have joined Karzai’s government since the hardline Islamists were ousted in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Sitting crossed-legged on a mat and sporting a long beard dyed to match his jet-black turban, Salaam told how he fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and later joined the Taliban as Afghanistan descended into civil war and anarchy after they left.
He rose to become governor of southern Uruzgan province — impressed with some aspects of Taliban rule, but also disturbed by others. Frustrated with the meddling of Pakistan’s intelligence service in Afghan affairs — and also angered by the way Pakistani militants were killing non-Pashtuns during operations in northern Afghanistan — Salaam said he quit the movement. Then September 11 happened.
US forces invaded, gave the Northern Alliance the muscle and firepower to tackle the Taliban and Salaam surrendered along with 200 of his armed men to the newly established pro-U.S. government of Karzai, only to be arrested later and jailed for eight months for “siding with the enemy.” Most of his men rejoined the Taliban, but once out of jail Salaam kept a low profile until approached by Karzai, who asked him to become district chief of Musa Qala in Helmand, the most restive part of Afghanistan and a key drug-producing province.
“My intention was to consolidate the pillars of the government after years of war and that was the reason I joined the government,” he said. Suddenly his services were in demand, and the Taliban approached him to become its shadow governor instead. “I told them I am no longer a warrior and we should campaign through the ballot rather than bullets,” he says of a meeting that left his old comrades furious and vowing vengeance. Some even called him apostate.
Over the following years he had death threats and assassination attempts made on his life, and was also kidnapped before being released after intensive tribal negotiations. Dozens of his extended family were targeted too.
Salaam said the government gave him little help in starting development projects in the area, and that British troops based there stymied his efforts and smeared his reputation until he was dismissed a few weeks ago. “They (people of Musa Qala) said I didn’t even build a stable,” he complained, adding he was now back in the capital to seek redress.
Meanwhile, Salaam now appears on local television discussion panels not as a voice of the Taliban, but someone who has a good insight into how they think. “Peace will not come to Afghanistan until you speak to the Taliban leaders and show sincerity,” he said.