The Taliban and Snake Oil Salesmen

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 9 months ago

Michael Semple is the one who coordinated the turnover of Musa Qala to Mullah Abdul Salaam.  Salaam is the erstwhile mid-level Taliban ‘commander’ who promised to field military forces (from among the tribes) to battle the Taliban, and who then retreated to his domicile and screamed for help when the battle between British / U.S. forces and the Taliban started.  This same Michael Semple believes that we can persuade the Taliban to show good form and play nice.

Two-thirds of the Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan can be persuaded to abandon violence, according to a British aid worker expelled from the country for opening talks with some of those allied to the militant group.

Michael Semple, a UN official arrested by the Afghan government on Christmas Day last year, said he was confident that most Taliban-linked insurgents could be absorbed into Afghanistan’s reconciliation process.

In his first interview with a British news organisation since he was forced to leave Afghanistan by the government of President Hamid Karzai, Semple defended his role in talking to elements linked to the Taliban. Until 2003 he had been a senior political adviser to the British embassy in Kabul.

Semple told the Guardian that he and the EU official Mervyn Patterson, who was also expelled, were victims of local politics. He said a local leader in Helmand province falsely blamed them for talking to what he described as “one of the irreconcilables” in the conflict. They had, he said, opened no such channel to al-Qaida-linked Taliban.

“There is a critical difference between what is discreet and what is covert,” Semple said. “What we were doing was simply discreet because that was what was required. But it was totally in line with official policy to bring people in from the cold.”

Describing the process of wooing Taliban-linked elements away from the insurgency, he cited the example of a leader in Helmand named Mullah Mamuk, whose regional enemies told western forces in 2001 that he was a terrorist, leading to his appearing on a most wanted poster.

“So naturally Mamuk goes to the Taliban to feel safe and takes those men he commands who are loyal to him with him, shows Taliban commanders the poster and says ‘It looks like I am now with you,’ Semple said.

“The authorities simply got the wrong guy and drove him into the Taliban’s hands. Now he is currently fighting against the British in Helmand but in my opinion local leaders like Mamuk can be won back over again.” Semple advocated creating a “network of patronage” to lure men like Mamuk away from the Taliban.

“It’s worth remembering there are an awful lot of Mullah Mamuks out there who can easily switch sides away from the Taliban and that is why I firmly believe that with good management you could break two-thirds of the insurgents away from those irreconcilables,” he said. He added that some of those arrested and taken to Guantánamo Bay during the early period of the US-led invasion had switched sides to the Karzai government.

“Take Haji Naeem Kochi, someone I have known for a very long time in Afghanistan. After 9/11 and the invasion he ended up doing time in Guantánamo Bay,” Semple said.

“When he came back … I met up with him. The first thing I asked him was did he learn any English and he replied: ‘Yes, but all I learned was sit up and sit down from the American guards.’ Yet despite doing time in Guantánamo he is now a member of the peace commission aimed at reconciling all Afghans.”

Semple described the controversy that led to his expulsion as “totally manufactured” by a local political leader jealously guarding resources given to him by the central government. This leader feared for his power base if ex-insurgents and former Taliban were brought into the peace process, Semple said.

“We were victims of local politics initially and being seen to take on the foreigners – in this case us – is seen as very popular in many places in Afghanistan. We were soft targets and the whole thing was spun well by him.”

He drew a comparison between what he and Patterson were seeking to achieve in Helmand and what the US had done in Anbar province in Iraq, where American forces opened talks with Sunni insurgents which resulted in setbacks for al-Qaida.

Michael Semple is stolid, and his reduction of the Anbar campaign to persuading the Sunnis to play nice is absurd and doesn’t even rise to the level of a childlike understanding of what happened in Anbar.  Semple should have fought alongside the Marines in 2004 – 2007 when they lost men to IEDs, snipers rounds, and RPGs, while continuing to force contact with the enemy until the enemy was persuaded that the choice for them was to play nice or die at the hands of the Marines.

To see the Anbar narrative as a few special forces operations against high value targets and talky-talk with the enemy is utterly to mistake the Anbar narrative.  For all of his evil, Osama bin Laden is strategically brilliant, and understood the value the population places on being the stronger horse: ” … when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”  Relentless kinetic operations and patient counterinsurgency won Anbar, and the notion of a tribal chief one day waking up and “flipping” sides is foolish nonsense.  Even Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha had to have his smuggling lines cut and dismembered by specially designed kinetic operations before he would “see the light” and decide that it was better to side with the U.S.  In Anbar, the Marines were the stronger horse.

Semple is ignoring other differences between some of the Sunni insurgency in Anbar (i.e., the indigenous fighters) and the Taliban and al Qaeda.  That is, the fighters in the Afghanistan / Pakistan theater fight more for religious persuasion than did the indigenous Sunnis in Anbar (the Taliban are more like al Qaeda in Anbar who had to be defeated militarily).  Semple’s plan is nothing more than a simpleton’s (or shyster’s) “get rich quick” scheme for counterinsurgency.  No troops, no fighting, no kinetic operations, no force projection, no public commitment, and no hard decisions.  Just talk and persuasion.  You may as well go purchase snake oil from the local street peddler.  Michael Semple is weaving fairy tales and daydreaming of butterflies and pretty flowers.  Meanwhile, if one of Mullah Omar’s men finds Michael Semple in the countryside somewhere in Afghanistan, they would be happy to slice him open from throat to belly.  Such is the difference between Semple and the Taliban.  Semple doesn’t understand this – but the Taliban do.

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You are currently reading "The Taliban and Snake Oil Salesmen", entry #944 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Taliban and was published February 19th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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