Viewpoint: Can Afghanistan learn from Northern Ireland?

Former Taliban fighters display their weapons as they join Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat province on 26 April 2012 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Taliban are ready to admit stalemate, if a senior commander is to be believed

There comes a point in a protracted insurgency or "terrorist" campaign when the combatants recognise that neither is going to defeat the other.

The result is military stalemate. This usually happens when the insurgents are under intense military pressure, in Afghanistan from the SAS and their US equivalents and in Northern Ireland from the SAS and undercover units.

If a remarkable interview with a senior Taliban commander in the New Statesman proves credible, then such an admission of stalemate may be acknowledged by the Taliban.

This, of course, is based on the assumption that the commander is who he says he is and his analysis is genuinely reflective of the views of Taliban leadership.

On the first count, there's little reason to doubt his authenticity given the reputation and experience of his interviewer, Michael Semple, the former UN envoy to Kabul, whose knowledge and acquaintanceship with the Taliban has been built up over many years.

It is the second count that perhaps should be viewed with a degree of scepticism given the uncompromising nature of the Taliban itself epitomised by its reclusive leader, Mullah Omar.

Nevertheless, on the assumption that what the commander says is genuinely reflective of the Taliban leadership, the parallel between the IRA and Taliban endgames would be striking.

After pursuing their "armed struggle" for 20 years, the IRA recognised they were not going to drive the "Brits" out of Northern Ireland and achieve their holy grail of a united Ireland by physical force.


According to the Taliban commander's interview, the Taliban have reached the same conclusion as the IRA - that they are not going to win.

"The Taliban leadership know they cannot prevail over the power they confront," says the veteran commander.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The long road to peace only began when IRA members realised the British could not be defeated

This goes against the standard Taliban line that victory is in sight as the occupying forces are about to leave, driven out by the Taliban's roadside bombs, suicide bombers and AK-47s.

"It is the nature of war that both sides dream of victory," the commander says in the interview. He recognises the Taliban leadership "cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness", as to do so "would undermine the morale of the Taliban personnel".

Such a recognition - if genuine in the Taliban's case - is the prerequisite of resolving such bloody and protracted conflicts.

The veteran IRA Belfast commander, the late Brendan Hughes, once told me much the same as the Taliban commander when reflecting on the IRA's decision to cease hostilities and enter the peace process.

"Prominent IRA people came to the conclusion that the British military machine could not be defeated and there had to be negotiations… Otherwise the only alternative was [to carry on] a futile war."

His words did not go down well with "prominent IRA people" for reasons not dissimilar to the concerns of the Taliban leadership.

Once the IRA had made the strategic decision to end its military campaign, the way was open to a peaceful political settlement that produced the remarkable sight of Martin McGuinness sharing power with Ian Paisley and eventually shaking hands with the Queen.

However this didn't happen overnight and took many years to achieve, made possible by the behind-the-scenes activities of the MI6 officer, Michael Oatley.

For almost 20 years, Oatley had nourished a secret back channel to the IRA leadership and planted the seeds that finally led to peace.

Oatley was able to read the signs of change in the IRA's strategy and convey them to the British government that then took the necessary steps to encourage the IRA on the path to peace.

Olive branch

Again, if Michael Semple's interviewee is to be believed, a similar process may happen in Afghanistan - with Semple perhaps fulfilling a similar back-channel role.

The interview sends a powerful signal to the governments in Washington, Kabul and the coalition capitals that, however unlikely it may seem, the Taliban may be ready to move towards peace.

Michael Oatley sent the same signal, although less publicly, to John Major's government after his first face-to-face meeting with Martin McGuinness.

If what the Taliban commander says is true, the situation in Afghanistan may move in the direction first outlined in February 2011 by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she set out America's roadmap for peace.

"We will never kill enough insurgents to end this war outright," she said. "Diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace."

She went on to offer a heavily qualified olive branch to the Taliban, laying out "unambiguous red lines" for reconciliation.

"They must renounce violence. They must abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda. And they must abide by the constitution of Afghanistan," she said. She then referred to the military pressure on the Taliban "targeting their leadership and decimating their ranks".

Michael Semple's interview would seem to meet most of Mrs Clinton's demands, most significantly with regard to al-Qaeda.

"Our people consider al-Qaeda to be a plague," the Taliban commander says. "I was relieved at the death of Osama [Bin Laden]. Through his policies he destroyed Afghanistan."

Furthermore he says that the Taliban's dream of re-establishing their former emirate under Sharia law is now shelved and the Taliban will have to function "as an organised party within the country".

The IRA, too, had to shelve its dream of a united Ireland in order to enter the political process. Would the Taliban really be prepared to do the same and abandon their dream instead of playing a waiting game and simply taking over once America and coalition forces have left?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Many splinter groups were formed when the IRA entered into the political process

If there is a settlement, the release of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay would probably follow, as did the release of prisoners from the Maze in Northern Ireland. Given a genuine political settlement, such a step may not be beyond President Obama.

But there are grave dangers, too, harbingers of the feared civil war. When the IRA decided to enter the political process, the organisation split into dissident wings determined to carry on the "armed struggle".

Likewise, there is no guarantee that the hardliners close to Mullah Omar, who gave Bin Laden shelter and who are thought to be committed to a return to the Afghanistan he presided over under Sharia law, are likely to go along with any such settlement.

When the IRA split in 1922 over the partition of Ireland, a bloody civil war followed. A serious split in the Taliban would probably lead to an even bloodier result.

It remains to be seen whether the interview with the Taliban commander is prophetic or the herald of a false dawn.

Peter Taylor is a BBC reporter and the author of Talking to Terrorists: A Personal Journey from the IRA to Al Qaeda.

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