On Christamas day, the UK Telegraph broke the story of British MI6 agents who, accompanied by British troops, held jirgas with Taliban fighters in Helmand province this past summer.
An intelligence source said: "The SIS officers were understood to have sought peace directly with the Taliban with them coming across as some sort of armed militia. The British would also provide 'mentoring' for the Taliban."
The disclosure comes only a fortnight after the Prime Minister told the House of Commons: "We will not enter into any negotiations with these people."Opposition leaders said that Mr Brown had "some explaining to do".
The Government was apparently prepared to admit that the talks had taken place but Gordon Brown was thought to have "bottled out" just before Prime Minister's Questions on Dec 12, when he made his denial instead.
... MI6's meetings with the Taliban took place up to half a dozen times at houses on the outskirts of Lashkah Gah and in villages in the Upper Gereshk valley, to the north-east of Helmand's main town.
The compounds were surrounded by a force of British infantry providing a security cordon.
To maintain the stance that President Hamid Karzai's government was leading the negotiations the clandestine meetings took place in the presence of Afghan officials.
"These meetings were with up to a dozen Taliban or with Taliban who had only recently laid down their arms," an intelligence source said. "The impression was that these were important motivating figures inside the Taliban."
The Prime Minister had denied reports of talks with the Taliban under questioning from David Cameron, the Tory leader, in Parliament.
The revelations have caused an uproar in the UK, as various commentators echo Conservative critic Liam Fox, who said "We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops."
Canadians will recognize this rhetoric as similar to the pro-war forces' dubbing the NDP's Jack Layton "Taliban Jack". Though countless commentators have noted the absurdity of such posturing - as if a war can be ended without negotiations - it is worth perusing the assessment of veteran British journalist Jason Burke. Though Burke supports the American-led occupation of Afghanistan, his comments are valuable:
For anyone who knows Afghanistan and its future, this sorry tale of manufactured outrage and grandstanding is depressing. The real motives for seeking the expulsion of western officials are revealed by an Afghan foreign ministry statement about "internationals" in the country having to "observe local law". The fact that Afghanistan - at least in theory - is a sovereign nation is often forgotten, with decisions about the country's future being made abroad.
More concerning still is the predictable outrage outside Afghanistan over reports that MI6 or the British government might be "talking to the Taliban". Of course they are talking to the Taliban, as various people have been doing for years. And they are right to do so.
The Taliban are far from homogeneous. Even the original leadership of the movement that seized power in 1996 included factions of varying degrees of radicalism. Some met US government envoys in 1998. It was a more moderate group - clearly all things are relative - that argued for the successful ban on poppy production in 1999 hoping it would lead to UN recognition. In the runup to the 2001 war, despite the Taliban's increasing extremism, contacts - often via third parties - continued. So talking to the Taliban is nothing new.
The post-2001 Taliban are even more diverse. There are hardcore ideological elements, with whom it would be impossible to negotiate. But there are many "fellow travellers" who will listen to anyone prepared to make them a better offer.
Frankly, this is just about the only strategy left. Militarily, there is a stalemate. All that our expensive and bloody commitment has done is to have contained the insurgency. The Taliban may be far from victory, but we are far from success. The only way to tilt the struggle in our favour is to scale back our aims, isolate the Taliban leadership, cut down their support base, and keep talking and fighting until there is a rump Taliban that is more of a nuisance than a genuine threat to the country's stability. All this will take a lot of money, time, political focus, jirgas and some basic reason, not manufactured outrage. (link)
Of course, the prospects for negotiations depend largely on the attitude of US officials. The American ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, has not objected to the British efforts. From the Associated Press:
William Wood said the U.S. is in favor of a ''serious reconciliation program with those elements of the Taliban who are prepared to accept the constitution and the authority of the elected government'' of President Hamid Karzai.''
The only place where we have concern would be the members of the Taliban with close connection to al-Qaida, the reason being that al-Qaida is an international threat, it is a global threat and we don't believe that there should be separate peaces with al-Qaida,'' he said. (link)