Examination of Witness (Questions 1-22)
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?
Yes, I can hear you fine.
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
We've got a four-hour difference at the moment.
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
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.
Do you think UK taxpayers are throwing money into a reintegration
black hole here?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Okay, that's fine.
Chair: I do apologise.
It's called democracy.
Sitting adjourned for a Division in the House.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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 roleswhether 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 reconciliationJohn.
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?
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.
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?
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 difficultit
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.
I wish I could offer them to you.
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.
Good question. In my experience of people from the original Taliban
leadership from the Kandaharisthose who tried to get Mullah
Omar back in 1994 and stuck with the movement throughout their
period of Governmentthere 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
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.
Clwyd: Apart from Mullah Omar, are there any other
key individuals who are willing to talk to the Afghans?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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 insurgencyI vaguely understand
that the insurgency is just a conglomeration of multiple commander
networkshas 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 tracksecond 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
reconciliationafter all, that is what they say they wantand
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
What role can President Karzai play in reconciliation? Will the
Taliban talk to him? Do they trust him? Can he play a part in
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.
If not Karzai, then who?
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
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 herewhatever
you deem that success to bevery remote indeed.
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".
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?
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 Kabulthe strong men of the political order
in KabulI 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 peacewith a
robust element to it as wellyou 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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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.