Why bribing the Taliban could pay off in the end
The West may balk at buying off the insurgents. But it could be the best hope for a lasting peace in Afghanistan, argues historian Richard Doherty
Gulab Mangal is a name that will not be known to many Belfast Telegraph readers. Nor will Mullah Salam’s name be recognised widely. But both men are critical to the creation of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Gulab Mangal is Helmand’s provincial governor while Mullah Salam is district governor of Musa Qaleh — a town that has featured in many news stories in recent years.
Mangal was appointed governor of Helmand in March 2008 and within two months was the target of an assassination attempt. A highly-educated man with a |degree in literature, he has shown a determination to improve the governance of his province and the quality of life of its people.
Mullah Salam became district governor of Musa Qaleh in late-2007 when Nato forces pushed the Taliban out of the town. Interestingly, Salaam was a former Taliban member. He had been a Taliban commander who fought the Soviets during their 10 years in Afghanistan. One soldier described Salam to me as a man of great talent for whom he had “a lot of time”. Basically, these two men have been making a difference in Helmand. Amidst all the news of explosions and shootings, we hear very little about the positive things that are happening in the country. But there are many developments that provide hope for the future of Helmand and Afghanistan.
And it’s against such a background that we should look at President Karzai’s suggestion that his government and its Nato allies should try to buy off the Taliban. This is not a new idea. It was actually considered by UK diplomats and military commanders, but in the Bush years was anathema to the Americans.
But now the US government is prepared to take a different view. The Obama administration has seen how former Taliban leaders have made a positive contribution to their country and realise that this can be built upon.
But who are the Taliban? Media reports attribute the violence in Afghanistan, especially the killing and wounding of Nato and Afghan troops, to the Taliban.
This is a simplistic picture and it’s worth remembering that the military commanders in the country do not describe their foe as the Taliban.
Instead, Nato refers to ‘anti-coalition militias’ (ACM). This summarises the full, armed opposition to Karzai’s regime. It includes drug-traffickers, local warlords, criminal gangs and religiously-motivated fighters. The last group include the Taliban. The ACM, the enemy, form a pyramid with the Taliban at its top.
‘Taliban’ means ‘seeker of truth’, or student, and the title represents a body of men — women have no say in the matter — who seek the fundamental truth of Islam.
They oppose the Westernisation of their society and want a return to what they see as the basic values of their faith. No harm in that, we might say, were it not for the fact that they are prepared to wage war to bring about that return to a golden age of Islamic values. Those at the top of ACM pyramid, the truly dedicated Taliban, are unlikely ever to be bought off by Karzai, or the West (especially the West). They will continue with their struggle to the death, quite literally.
But further down the pyramid are men who are more amenable to Karzai’s proposal. Money could well persuade many other anti-government fighters to lay down their rifles and RPGs. Of course, there are Taliban fighters who may be persuaded that a peaceful future would be much better for their people. This is the path that Mullah Salam chose and, since 2007, he has shown real courage in representing that path to others.
His change of allegiance brought an immediate sentence of death from his former comrades, but he continues to work for a better future for Musa Qaleh. And he has had the support of Gulab Mangal who has been prepared to take great personal risks and to challenge the Kabul government when it seemed to be failing in its responsibilities to Helmand.
There are precedents for Karzai’s proposed line of action. The best example is the Dhofar rebellion in Oman in the 1960s and early-70s.
After initial success, the Adoo, the rebels, were defeated by a combination of factors — the use of SAS troops, although kept secret at the time, reconstruction work in Dhofar, led by Royal Engineers, political changes, including a new sultan, and improved quality of life for the province’s people. Significantly, among the tactics employed was the persuading of rebel fighters to change allegiance. Cash incentives were offered to the Adoo, including a bonus for anyone who brought his weapon. Such ‘converted’ rebels formed ‘Firqat’ — units of up to 150 men. Identifying themselves as Islamic groups, they chose names such as the Firqat Salah uh Din (Saladin).
Among their number was one of the leading rebels, Said bin Gheer, who switched his allegiance to the sultan. With such units fighting alongside the Sultan’s armed forces, the rebellion came to an end in 1975. And this was in spite of the support of outside agencies such as the Yemeni and Chinese governments. Mullah Salam has followed the example of Said bin Gheer and has provided an example that has not been lost on President Karzai. Persuading ACM leaders and fighters to switch to the government side would improve intelligence gathering, show that Afghans can come together to deal with their own problems and, in the longer term, move Afghanistan along the path to lasting stability
Richard Doherty is the author of Helmand Mission: with 1st Royal Irish Battlegroup in Afghanistan 2008 (Pen & Sword Military £19.99)