Coalition forces in Afghanistan should open talks with the Taliban “pretty soon” as part of a future exit strategy, the head of the British army said on Sunday.
Insisting that talking to the enemy was eventually inevitable in a conflict of this kind, General Sir David Richards also seemed to cast doubt on whether the coalition would be able to inflict “strategic defeat” on the Taliban.
“If you look at any counterinsurgency campaign throughout history there’s always been a point at which you start to negotiate, probably through proxies in the first instance,” he said in an interview on BBC radio.
Claiming that he was merely expressing “a private view,” he went on: “I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be looking at that sort of thing pretty soon.”
Ministers have been cautious about talking up the prospects of holding peace talks for fear that it might be seen as an admission of defeat. However, Richards said he did not think negotiations and outright war were “mutually contradictory.”
“At the same time [as talking to the enemy], you have got to continue the work we are doing on the military, governance and development perspectives to make sure they don’t think that we are giving up. It’s a concurrent process,” he said. “We need to continue to make the Taliban feel they are being punished in a military sense. Whether we can turn that into some sense of strategic defeat I’m less certain.”
Richards insisted that the people of Afghanistan did not want the Taliban to return and was confident the coalition was making progress in training Afghan forces. Creating a “stabilized Afghanistan under a competent government” would allow British troops to come home with a feeling of a “job well done,” he said.
A UK Ministry of Defence source said although the government has not called for talks to start quite as directly as Richards did, the general’s comments were in line with ministerial thinking.
“We can’t win a purely military victory in Afghanistan,” the source said. “It’s going to have to go hand in hand with a political settlement.”
Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted British troops home by 2015, but in a separate interview on Sunday Sir Richard Dannatt, Richards’ predecessor, said: “Just think back. Northern Ireland, maybe very different circumstances, but we were there for 38 years. Bosnia, we were there for 14, 15. Kosovo, we were there for 10. These things take time.”