The UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-22)

  Q1 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this sitting of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is on our report on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Semple, can you hear us okay?

  Michael Semple: Yes, I can hear you fine.

  Q2 Chair: Mr Semple, you are our first witness in this inquiry. Members of the public may be unaware that Mr Semple is sitting in Islamabad. We are down for 45 minutes, Michael. Over here in the UK it is 14.50 and we will be running this to 15.35. What time is it over there?

  Michael Semple: We've got a four-hour difference at the moment.

  Q3 Chair: Okay. Thank you very much for agreeing to this. I shall kick off the questions. I was having a look this morning at the article you wrote in February in which you were quite critical about efforts to focus reintegration on low-level fighters. What is your prognosis for the current attempts to reintegrate low-level fighters into the mainstream?

  Michael Semple: I believe that the reintegration efforts are necessary but inadequate. The inherent limitation of the reintegration efforts is that as long as the leadership is standing well back from them they will work hard to replace anybody who accepts the reintegration deal. We've barely got to that stage yet because although reintegration has been avowedly at the top of policy since the start of this year, very little has happened. It has not been as joined up or as well funded an effort as some people thought it might be at the start of the year. If anybody thought that reintegration was going to be the main theme of 2010, it has not happened. The Taliban leadership has not had to replace many fighters lost to reintegration.

  Q4 Chair: Do you think UK taxpayers are throwing money into a reintegration black hole here?

  Michael Semple: That was always a risk. I've been critical of the predecessor programme as I believed that many of the supposed fighters signing up to it were not bona fide insurgents. We have not hit that problem this year. Basically, not much has happened so UK taxpayers' money has been parked somewhere and, as far as I can see, has not been spent.

  Q5 Chair: Am I correct in saying that you believe that the efforts should be higher up to the top leadership or do you think the emphasis should be more on reconciliation than reintegration?

  Michael Semple: I think that both tracks should run. I think that it is sensible to continue efforts at reintegration, but to do that well. However, I also think that it is important to launch a much more politically oriented reconciliation track which would be at a higher level.

  Chair: I will hand over to Mike Gapes now, who will continue the questioning.

  Q6 Mike Gapes: Do you think that we-the UK, the US, ISAF-have any real idea or any coherent view of what we mean by reconciliation?

  Michael Semple: Obviously a lot of people have worked on it. There is a lot of comment out there. It is a good question because some big decisions have not yet been taken so I am sure that there are quite a few conflicting ideas out there. In one sense, since the end of last year when the distinction had started to be made between reintegration and reconciliation, people have become a little bit clearer that reconciliation means some kind of political accommodation with the leadership of the insurgency, allowing them to join the political system in Afghanistan. That has been my understanding of the range of the debate over the past year.

  Q<7 Mike Gapes: But isn't there a danger that if you have reconciliation from a position of weakness, you end up with a position that is very dangerous for the long-term? We had a report last year, in the previous Foreign Affairs Committee, in which we said that there could be no serious prospects for meaningful discussions until the Afghan National Security Forces were able to gain and hold ground and then negotiate from a position of strength. Do you agree with that approach, or do you think that we just need to negotiate regardless of the circumstances?

  Michael Semple: There are a couple of aspects to this. First of all, I think that the single most important factor that could help the leadership in the insurgency to make their mind up, get on with it and enter into some kind of negotiations in good faith, would be if they realised that they had no realistic military prospects of toppling the Government in Kabul and taking over the country. That is a slightly different phrasing of what you are saying, but clearly the way they read the military situation affects the way forward to reconciliation. But what I really don't buy is this notion that that means that those on the international side and the Government of Afghanistan have to sit back and wait for a transformation of the military situation. We do not believe that there is any formula which allows you to send out invitations for negotiation, for those to be delivered and for negotiations to be able to start one week or two weeks later. It is an incredible amount of mistrust with the lack of confidence on both sides, something which perhaps we could get with a low profile before any meaningful negotiation process starts. There are a lot of useful things that could be done even before this fundamental change makes the situation happen.

  Chair: Mr Semple, I am terribly sorry. I don't know if you can hear at your end, but we have a Division bell ringing yet again. You have picked one of the worst afternoons that we could be having for this type of thing. I am terribly sorry, but I have got to adjourn the meeting for a further 10 minutes.

  Michael Semple: Okay, that's fine.

  Chair: I do apologise. It's called democracy.

  Sitting adjourned for a Division in the House.

  On resuming—

  Chair: I do apologise for the interruption, Mr Semple. The intelligence I have is that that was the last time we shall be interrupted. The Committee is drifting back, but we are quorate, so I intend to start. I'm handing over to Mike Gapes, who had put a question to you just before the break.

  Q8 Mike Gapes: Mr Semple, I'm not sure, because of the bell, whether all of what you said was picked up, so perhaps you could summarise what you said in your last answer and then I'll come in with another question.

  Michael Semple: There were two basic points. The first point is that I believe that one of the main factors affecting the decision of the Taliban vis-à-vis negotiation possibilities and entering a settlement is how they view the future. If they believe that they don't stand a chance in the foreseeable future of managing to grab Kabul, they're more inclined to enter into negotiations in good faith. If they see Kabul crumbling, their war party is more inclined to try and just grab it. However, even while you wait for something to be done to shore up the military situation, there is an awful lot that can be done in terms of reconciliation. You can summarise it simply by calling it confidence-building. The parties are so far apart at the moment that there is a lot of confidence-building that can be done to lay the ground for successful future negotiations.

  Q<9 Mike Gapes: To what extent, separately, are the Kabul authorities, the Afghan Government, our own allies and ISAF in a position to set the terms and conditions for any negotiations?

  Michael Semple: If setting terms means being able to dictate all those terms, not expecting anybody else to have a say, at the moment I don't think that the military and political situation really renders that possible. That's why, when I talk about reconciliation, I certainly think it'll take some form of accommodation. There is going to be some kind of give and take.

  Q<10 Mike Gapes: Can I give you a specific example with regard to the position of women in Afghanistan? Would we be able to lay down some kind of bottom line, which has to be accommodated?

  Michael Semple: I can feed back from some discussions I have had, behind the scenes, with various figures in the Taliban whom it is possible to get access to, at which I have asked exactly the same thing: what is likely to be their attitude to women moving into some kind of roles—whether it be in negotiations, or into future relationships or roles in the political system? The sensible ones say quite clearly that they realise that there are bottom lines. They also generally make a point of saying that they have moved on, and that they have recognised some of their failures during their period in Government.

  It would be the wrong way to think of it that somehow the western powers go in muscling their way in negotiations, and that they will somehow be sole guarantors of the rights of Afghan women. The way I understand it is that the pragmatists in the Taliban would see benefits of being part of the political system and benefits of being accepted by the international community. Then you realise that they have to move on this themselves. They would probably prefer to be seen, in a sense, to be making that move themselves, rather than having their arms twisted the whole way. I think that there is a prospect for a positive outcome, but going about it the wrong way could undermine it.

  Chair: A quick one on reconciliation—John.

  Q<11 Mr Baron: The chances of reconciliation and a successful negotiated settlement generally will obviously be improved if we can carry, to a certain extent at least, the hearts and minds of the local population. I would suggest that with the Government's political credibility very low and with high civilian casualty rates, it is much easier for the Taliban to depict Kabul as a sort of puppet Government, and the West as an occupying force. What chance do you think there is of winning the hearts and minds of at least a reasonable segment of the population so that reconciliation can become a more likely prospect?

  Michael Semple: That is a difficult one. Before we come on to what the general population, those who are not in the insurgency, think, we should look at what the Taliban think. You are absolutely right to say that one of the main recruiting tools that the Taliban have is their ability to point to the ongoing military operation, to claim that they have this enmity with NATO and to mobilise young Afghans in the latest struggle against foreign occupation. In a sense, for the Taliban to recruit and persuade people that it is worth making the sacrifice to continue the fight, they have to persuade people not to believe the narrative that I think comes out of most western capitals, which is that no western country wants to be involved in occupying Afghanistan, and that the idea is going to help stabilise and wind down the military presence as soon as possible. So the Taliban have their own problem in winning hearts and minds to persuade people to fight.

  On the other side, reconciliation, which I think makes sense, is about ensuring that there is something in the political order based around Kabul that is worth joining. Of course, the Kabul Government have to be at least performing up to a certain minimum standard, and western troops should not be providing too many propaganda opportunities with the civilian casualties. Somewhere along the way, there is going to have to be a better understanding of the long-term intentions to help Afghanistan.

  Q12 Mr Frank Roy: The United States has been put forward as a country that drags its feet in relation to reconciliation. Where do you think we are in relation to reconciliation and the United States? How difficult will it be to bring about that reconciliation when they have said that they are very reluctant to negotiate with parties that are irreconcilable?

  Michael Semple: I think it is true that previously it was very difficult for the US to contemplate something as radical as entering into a political accommodation with the Taliban. It is very difficult—it goes against many of the received narratives. That is why, as things have moved on over the past two or three years, publicly the US has moved the position of being supportive of reintegration but hasn't been taking public stances in support of reconciliation with the Taliban leadership. I believe that there is an inherent logic in reconciliation that ultimately is bound to appeal to the US, and I would expect a significant change from the US to be supportive of reconciliation on the right terms. You can argue about history, and maybe there has been US foot-dragging, but I think there is a pretty serious prospect that the US, as part of its commitment to try to wind down the military entanglement in a sensible way that will lead to a stable Afghanistan, will come out more clearly in favour of reconciliation.

  Ann Clwyd: Mr Semple, those eats in front of you look very nice, although I don't know what they are.

  Michael Semple: I wish I could offer them to you.

  Q13 Ann Clwyd: I wonder if you could identify which elements within the Afghan insurgency are actually interested in negotiating with either Kabul or the rest, or both.

  Michael Semple: Good question. In my experience of people from the original Taliban leadership from the Kandaharis—those who tried to get Mullah Omar back in 1994 and stuck with the movement throughout their period of Government—there is a significant level of interest there. That is not to say it is all easy and that it is going to happen tomorrow, but those are the people with whom we assume it is possible to sit down and have a very sensible discussion. They understand a lot more about the world than they are often given credit for, and they have a vision of a political settlement. So the first answer to that is a significant part of the original Kandahari leadership.

  Looking at other parts of the movement and at the talk of the Haqqani Network and the people operating out of Waziristan, it is generally assumed that it would be impossible for them to go along with a negotiated settlement. On the other hand, I have heard a few signals saying that that's not actually the case. I take a lot of this with a pinch of salt at the moment. Certainly the conversations that I have had have been much more meaningful with the original Kandahari leadership than with the people operating out of Waziristan.

  Throughout the insurgency, any who think politically understand that, whether it is after 10 years or after one year, there will have to be a political process. There is not a monopoly in Kandahar; I started off by saying Kandahar because they are so important to the overall insurgency and in a sense they borrowed the brand name of the Taliban. The make-or-break role in any reconciliation process will rest with the Khost Talibs and the Kandahari Talibs.

  Q14 Ann Clwyd: Apart from Mullah Omar, are there any other key individuals who are willing to talk to the Afghans?

  Michael Semple: There are. This is probably not the best forum to go through that, but I can just explain that the people who formed this process are forever trying to work out who the pragmatists are, what scope they have and what weight they have. There are significant numbers of pragmatists in the original movement, and it probably all comes down to the circumstance in which the process starts, rather than just which individual. A lot of people will show their true colours when the time is right.

  Q15 Ann Clwyd: Do you think that those who are interested in talking have sufficient clout within their own groups to bring those groups along with them?

  Michael Semple: I will give you an example. The person that Mullah Omar appointed as his deputy essentially to run the insurgency is Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was the Civil Aviation Minister during the Taliban period of Government. My reading of him from his history, the way he behaved in the past, and so on, is that in the right circumstances he would come down as a pragmatist, yet he does nothing. He understands the world and he has a vision of an end beyond the conflict, and Mansour would be on board in the right circumstances. Currently, Mansour is assigned to run the insurgency, so he can't just put his hand up and say, "Okay, we want the negotiations now". Links can be created, and it is possible to deal with people even right at the top of the Taliban movement.

  Q16 Rory Stewart: Hello, Michael. What is Pakistan's role in all of this, and how should the international community respond? What should we not do in relation to Pakistan and what should we do in relation to Pakistan?

  Michael Semple: Thanks for the most difficult one, Rory. Obviously, all of the sensitive issues really revolve around the role of Pakistan. However you explain it and whoever you blame, the fact is that every commander network that is operating in the insurgency—I vaguely understand that the insurgency is just a conglomeration of multiple commander networks—has a base in Pakistan. They all drove on what is being called as a form of safe haven, although if you are talking about Waziristan it is not quite as safe these days. Seriously, Pakistan is a host for part of the insurgency.

  If you are talking about the potential for Pakistan's role, I would say that the best potential for that role is essentially to turn what we have seen as a sort of military liability into a political asset and to make it possible for whoever is in charge of pushing for the deal to convince the Taliban that there is a life beyond our struggle, and that there is the possibility of an accommodation in which they will no longer be obliged to go out and risk getting themselves killed every day. The best hope for Pakistan is to put that faith at the disposal of those who pursue reconciliation, which is very different from asking for it to be used for strikes or an arrest or something. Speaking for Pakistan, the best thing to do would be to create an informal safe haven for peace rather than a safe haven for insurgents.

  In terms of what Pakistan is currently doing, let me first of all refer to what a lot of the Taliban say, with the note of caution that most Afghan stories have to be taken with a certain pinch of salt and evaluated. Frequently, when I talk to the Taliban, they say that some elements in the Pakistan security establishment actively discipline the insurgency, apply all sorts of leverage to ensure that they keep up with the fight and maintain an eagle eye to ensure that nobody waivers. That is not to say that there should never be any possibility of some kind of negotiation, but it should only be on authorised terms and through authorised channels. Multiple Taliban have told me that story and given that version of events, and of course you have followed all the discussions around the arrest of Mullah Baradar and of various other arrests that went around, and everybody was trying to interpret those. Many Taliban choose to say that "that was a means of disciplining us". To the extent that that is real, wherever it is coming from and however that rests against other aspects of Pakistan's policy, we should never forgot that Pakistan is the second largest beneficiary from successful reconciliation, peace in Afghanistan and a movement towards getting back on track—second only to the Afghan people themselves.

  However you understand this role of disciplining people and twisting their arms to keep up the fight, it is important to deal with Pakistan in such a way that you encourage the good and discourage the bad, so that they actually take a positive stance towards reconciliation, let the space be used for pursuing reconciliation—after all, that is what they say they want—and rein in anybody who is doing the disciplining. In the previous answer we talked about how would the negotiations be, but before you get anywhere near the negotiations, a lot of Taliban say, "First we want to know, what kind of protection or guarantee can you provide for us when we eventually enter a reconciliation stage?"

  Q17 Chair: What role can President Karzai play in reconciliation? Will the Taliban talk to him? Do they trust him? Can he play a part in all this?

  Michael Semple: First of all, President Karzai is the President of Afghanistan; he has a key role in everything that happens in Afghanistan and woe betide anyone who forgets it. I can feed back the kind of things that the Taliban say when I get a chance to talk to them. They do not particularly trust President Karzai. They are strangely unconvinced that President Karzai or the Kabul Administration exercise real authority. They are not greatly convinced that the Kabul Administration have staying power. They vary in their degree of allergy to Kabul. They certainly do not expect that a process where exclusively the Taliban talk to Karzai, who talks to the Kabul Government, would be terribly fruitful. In my contact with the Taliban they have been pretty consistent in saying that they expect an international role. They do not expect that a deal cut with only Kabul would be robust.

  Q18 Chair: If not Karzai, then who?

  Michael Semple: Well, they do not have terribly good answers on that, and I think that they will probably end up eventually talking to Kabul, and talking to President Karzai. In terms of the mechanics of getting things going and particularly the early stages of building up confidence and creating a space in which people can envisage what the deal and accommodation would look like, I think that a trusted international intermediary really could help unlock things. That is something that has sort of forced itself on to the agenda of late.

  Q19 Mr Baron: Can I return to the issue of the hearts and minds of the local population, because that is going to be a key issue? Various reports, and I know there cannot be too much accuracy in these, suggest that civilian casualty rates have gone up relatively recently. I just wanted to know your analysis of that and the effect that it may be having on local populations and so forth, because the recent report by the US Department of Defence to Congress said that the most lethal weapon the Taliban had was their propaganda and that they can get into these situations very quickly and exploit bad news for their own benefit. If you look at the history of those countries or regimes that have taken on the West militarily, communism has survived the longest for example in North Korea, Cuba, China and Vietnam. I just worry that the civilian casualty rates are having a real negative approach to everything and make our chances of succeeding here—whatever you deem that success to be—very remote indeed.

  Michael Semple: I think that it is absolutely right that the civilian casualty rate, apart from being bad in itself, makes things all the more difficult in the political process and certainly the Taliban capitalise on it. It also reduces the moral authority of both ISAF and the Kabul Government. I guess that alongside the civilian casualty rate there has been some increase in the Taliban casualty rate, which is just pushing us in a slightly different direction. Overall, the reporting of civilian casualties has a tendency to make people think "a plague on all their houses".

  Q20 Mr Baron: Can I follow that up a little bit? Some sort of negotiation, I would suggest, is obviously going to have to involve the Taliban in their various guises, and the regional warlords. It is the old saying that you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. You have commented about perhaps a suspicion with regard to President Karzai. We know of the US hostility or public hostility to any form of negotiation. At the end of the day, there has to be some sort of negotiated settlement, reflecting the reality on the ground, which is the regional power base of the warlords and the various components of the Taliban, but how is that going to be instigated? Is this going to be very low-level and under the radar screen, or is it about time for a public acceptance that there has to be some form of negotiation?   

  Michael Semple: Let me quickly make one more point on the previous question, then come on to the issue of the warlords. On the issue of civilian casualties, I have heard quite a few of the Taliban talk about the impact of military escalation on their own calculations, which is a slightly different point from the way people normally look at civilian casualties. Particularly with the start of the surge and in the case of the military operations, the Taliban basically say to me, "Oh, it seems that your people have obviously decided to fight this one through rather than settle it. Okay, we fight. We realise that all this talk about reconciliation was not serious". Basically, what they are saying is, "As you escalate and generate both civilian and military casualties, you undermine your claim to be interested ultimately in a settlement".

  Moving on to the issue of involvement of the regional warlords, the problem is that I did not get all of the question. If the point is about those who are the power behind the throne in Kabul—the strong men of the political order in Kabul—I think it is very sensible to think that they should be on board. It is a point that I have always discussed with the Taliban as well. The last thing you need on the Afghan counterpart side is a neutral figure. You need to be talking to old enemies if you are going to settle something. However the process is structured, an opportunity will have to be created for other political stakeholders on the Kabul side to sign off on any deal. The idea that a small number of people sitting in the palace should be signing off on it would be mistaken.

  It is also worth pointing out that President Karzai is making this kind of calculation as well. If you look at the composition of his High Council for Peace, a lot of the people he has deliberately brought in have got lots of experience of waging war rather than promoting peace. I think what he is trying to do is demonstrate that some of the Taliban's old enemies are sitting on the other side.

  The question I partly heard was whether it is time to be coming out in public with this. I believe that a public commitment to pursue reconciliation and seek a political accommodation would have a positive effect. It is something that one shouldn't be frightened of. Doing it transparently would be far better than all these smoke-and-mirror stories that go around about supposed talks and so on happening. We have a fundamental problem in the narrative of what all these countries are doing in Afghanistan. I had naïvely thought early on that we were supposed to be about promoting peace in Afghanistan after an excessively long war. Even after listening to all the attempts to sum up national security interest in terms of the hunt for al-Qaeda, I think that the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan best sums up the common interest between countries such as the UK, the US, Afghanistan and even Pakistan. The issues of taking care of the terrorist threat can be nicely parked inside the overall agenda of peace. When you say that your primary business is promoting peace—with a robust element to it as well—you do not have to be frightened of showing weakness by being prepared to come to accommodation, because accommodation is fundamental to the pursuit of peace.

  Q21 Sir Menzies Campbell: Could we give the word "regional" a wider application? How far do you think that any deal, if you will forgive the colloquialism, would depend upon regional acquiescence and/or support? In particular, as Pakistan and India are often at loggerheads for a variety of reasons, some historical, some contemporary, what role, positive or negative, do you think India might play?

  Michael Semple: On the one hand, to make progress on reconciliation one would want to keep it as simple as possible. On the other hand, if you don't address the regional dimension it will not work. Of all the regional powers, Pakistan is probably the one with most invested in this and the potential to help most in reconciliation and also to spoil it if it were to so choose. The first point is that in any move towards reconciliation it is important to have Pakistan on board. Ideas have been put forward that Pakistan could help by putting its proxies at the disposal of the reconciliation process. That will probably not work. A more sensible approach would be to have regional diplomacy to ensure that Pakistan's interests and concerns are dealt with separately rather than via Afghan proxies.

  It is not that Pakistan somehow chooses the proxies in the insurgency and pushes them towards the negotiating table, it is more that Pakistan, in dealing with the US, Kabul and the other people involved, gets a chance to say, "Look, we're concerned about A, B and C and who can help us." You are well aware that we have been told in many forums that the first concern for Pakistan is that there should be viable stability inside Afghanistan so that Afghan problems don't keep coming back to Pakistan. The second concern is that there should not be adverse Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan should not have to worry about the Afghan frontier becoming a hostile frontier as it sometimes treats the Indian frontier in its security analyses.

  Basically, there has to be regional diplomacy which ensures that Pakistan is reasonably certain that beyond the peace deal and into the future, there will be no adverse Indian influence. I have heard reasonable and unreasonable formulations of this. It would be absolutely inappropriate to think of India being talked out of Afghanistan. India is a major regional power and it has to be doing things in Afghanistan, but there have to be some guidelines about what crosses the red line in terms of constituting a threat to Pakistan. A range of other regional powers have some kind of stake in Afghanistan, but none of them quite as much as Pakistan or India. The practical way probably to deal with this would be somebody taking forward a reconciliation track, particularly something like an international mediator, who would probably need a regional support group to work with them and to provide mutual reassurances. You will recall that Saudi Arabia has frequently been mentioned as a country with a lot to offer and also something to gain from the al-Qaeda issue being dealt with. That is an example of the kind of country that would play a very important role inside a regional support group for any reconciliation process.

  Q22 Chair: Thank you. Mr Semple, time has expired. May I close with a final question? What are the essential steps for a successful reconciliation? Can you conclude with an overview of how it could be achieved?

  Michael Semple: First, the key players decide to do it, moving beyond the kind of confusion and ambiguities that we have had. The next step is clearly assigning responsibility. Somebody has to run with this. There are various options, but it's going to be quite a painful process, and it's not going to happen by default. Somebody's going to have to run with it.

  When that person runs with it, there's going to be a process of building up confidence among all parties that there can actually be a settlement which will be useful for them. There's going to be intense diplomatic work on both sides of the Durand line and in several regional capitals. Then there's going to be aligning the overall political and military engagement in Afghanistan with any emerging settlement. At some stage along the way, there probably will be a round of negotiations. Then there's resourcing it.

  Chair: Thank you very much indeed. That was really helpful, gives us a good insight and sets us off on our inquiry. It's very much appreciated that you've taken the time to do this. On behalf of the Committee, I convey our thanks.

  Michael Semple: Thank you very much. I'm delighted by the opportunity, and I'm really glad that you're asking all these questions about reconciliation and reintegration. The sooner we get back to pursuing a peace process in Afghanistan, the better.

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