When Michael Semple, the Irish-born and Dari-speaking UN deputy head of mission in Afghanistan was expelled from that country in December 2007 for allegedly talking to the Taliban, it was widely recognised that this was a major blow to Western efforts at reconciliation.
Semple was expelled together with Mervyn Patterson, a British-born UN official after they travelled to Helmand and made contact with tribal leaders close to the Taliban. The Afghan security services believed they were involved in unauthorised contacts and were offering to pay commanders who defected.
Although it was not said openly, the suspicion was that both men were working for MI6. It later transpired that both men were the victim of petty jealousies, with one local leader reporting them to the Afghan intelligence service because he feared being marginalised.
Semple and Patterson insisted that their talks were legitimate. In part they were based on theories that Semple has now outlined in much greater detail in a new publication called Reconcialiation in Afghanistan, published by the United States Institute for Peace.
In this short, but very readable book, Semple outlines his argument that peace is achievable in Afghanistan. He says two-thirds of the Taliban are fighting not for idealogical reasons, but due to local conflicts and that these networks can be persuaded to reach an accommodation with the government.
Semple says his book is based on interviews between 2004 and 2007 with around 200 Afghans who had been involved directly or indirectly in the country's insurgency, ranging from senior Taliban leaders to the lowest level of insurgent. At least one was a provincial commander. "Many of the men expressed their aspirations for the future," writes Semple, "and none of them came across as crazy or fanatic."
The book gives excellent descriptions of all the attempts to date to open negotiations with insurgents in Afghanistan and offers many strategies for continuing that process. He says:
"To date, the focus of the Afghan government and international partners has been primarily on achieving subjugation or co-option of the armed opposition. But these efforts have achieved little strategic effects, partly because the fear of appeasement or capitulation has been used to deter potially effective measures of accommodation."
This book should be required reading for all military personnel in Afghanistan.
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