'We should have talked to Taliban' says top British officer in Afghanistan

Exclusive: General Nick Carter says west could have struck a deal with Taliban leaders after they were toppled a decade ago

The west should have tried talking to the Taliban a decade ago, when they had just been toppled from power, the top British commander in Afghanistan has told the Guardian, barely a week after the latest attempt to bring the insurgent group to the negotiating table stuttered to a halt.

General Nick Carter, deputy commander of the Nato-led coalition, said Afghan forces would need western military and financial support for several years after western combat troops head home in 2014. And he said the Kabul government may have to accept that for some years it would have only shaky control over some remoter parts of the country.

Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, he said: “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,” he said.

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.”

But he believed the police and army had been shaped into sustainable institutions that were strong enough to protect a critical presidential election next year, and guarantee stability for “the majority” of the country after the western withdrawal.

The US and Afghan governments are pushing hard for negotiations to end a conflict that has dragged on for more than 12 years. But critics have long argued that the west could have struck a deal with moderate Taliban leaders after ousting the group from power in 2001, perhaps saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

One academic who studies the Taliban said the group tried to reach out to their own and the US governments until 2004, and would have made major compromises. “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,” said Alex Strick von Linschoten, author of An Enemy We Created.

Today the insurgent group dominates swaths of the country, and seems ambivalent at best about negotiating ahead of the departure of foreign troops. Underlining how challenging efforts to broker peace talks are, the latest efforts collapsed in diplomatic farce last week.

The Taliban opened an office in Qatar which was meant to be a formal base for meetings, and was welcomed by Washington, but the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, shut down the process after Taliban spokesmen presented the villa as a de-facto embassy for a government-in-exile.

Carter said he was confident that Nato’s handover of security to Afghan forces, finalised last week, would eventually …read more  

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