Britain’s key weapon in Afghanistan: the bribe

In allegedly trying to buy off a local Taliban leader, British officials have shown a haughty and colonial disregard for the Afghan government.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

The Christmas day arrests and subsequent expulsions from Afghanistan of two top Western diplomats – Michael Semple, the Irish acting head of the European Union mission, and Mervyn Patterson, a British diplomat working for the United Nations – have highlighted the lack of any long-term political strategy behind international intervention in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government alleges that Semple and Patterson were trying to buy off local Taliban in Musa Qala, the town retaken by NATO forces in December (see Britain’s theatrical war against the Taliban, by David Chandler). If this is true, it calls into question the view that British troops in Afghanistan are pursuing a clear dual strategy of military action against extremists and negotiations with political moderates, in order to divide and defeat Taliban forces.

The expulsions suggest that rather than relying on either military or political solutions, the key British weapon in the ‘war’ against the Taliban has been the bribe. Afghan officials allege that the expelled British and Irish nationals had $150,000 (£75,000) with them, for the purpose of buying the support of a local Taliban leader; they also claim to have found data on the officials’ laptops showing they had made previous payments to him (1).

There seems little doubt that the arrests of the EU and UN officials on allegations of bribery are linked to Britain’s secret intelligence service talks with Taliban commanders in Helmand. MI6 appears to have been consistently engaged in bribing local Taliban leaders to shift allegiances since the 2001 US-led invasion which overthrew the regime (2).

Most of the British press has been full of praise for the strategy of bribing the Taliban and has dressed this strategy up as a constructive way to strengthen the Afghan government’s authority. According to an editorial in the Guardian: ‘The Taliban is at times as much a way of mind as it is a coordinated force, and to overcome it will need more than military might. It will require local negotiation and reassurance of just the kind the Secret Intelligence Service is said to have been carrying out.’ (3)

The same editorial condemned Tory shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, for his theatrical outrage over the revelations. In a statement, Fox said: ‘We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops.’ (4) In a later opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph, Fox clarified his position, stating that while ‘negotiations’ would be wrong, ‘talks’ with the Taliban were okay: ‘Holding talks with tribal leaders, many of whom are likely to have been Taliban leaders in the past, is essential… But there are crucial differences between such contacts and negotiations… A negotiation implies compromise. And there are principles on which we plainly cannot compromise with those who strap suicide bombs on young men and women.’ (5)

Official discussion in British policy circles has focused on the dual nature of the British position in relation to the Taliban. Fox’s position is in fact no different to that of UK prime minister Gordon Brown: there is the ‘official’ Taliban, described as ‘terrorists’, with whom war is to be waged and negotiations would be immoral, and there is the ‘unofficial’ Taliban, local leaders whose support appears to be essential in stabilising the Afghan state. This strategy enables the British government to argue that it is maintaining the moral high ground in a principled military struggle as well as demonstrating its strategic political and intelligence capacities on the ground.

Despite the seeming consensus at home, opposition to the British policy of bribing the Taliban has come from the Afghan government and the United States. According to the Daily Telegraph, the Afghan government acted on the advice and information of US intelligence services who were unhappy with the high level of support the British were providing to the Taliban, which included direct financial as well as other forms of support, including food and mobile phone cards (6).

In response, the Afghan government and the US have been accused of being petty and moralistic. According to European diplomats, Afghan president Hamid Karzai acted out of irrational ‘pique’ in ‘asserting Afghan sovereignty’, while the US has been accused of ‘painting this black and white’, as if it was ‘a cowboy film – you’re either a good guy or a bad guy’ (7).

However, it would seem that both the US and the Afghan government have reasonable grounds for being unhappy with the British. The policy of bribing the Taliban came unstuck precisely in the Musa Qala area, where the diplomats were arrested.

Senior British commanders struck a deal in late 2006 to secure the withdrawal of British troops through bribing local elders and wanted to use Musa Qala as a blueprint for pacifying Helmand. The strategy was rapidly discredited when the Taliban retook the town with the agreement of local elders in February 2007. The US NATO commanders had, from the start, opposed the British policy of securing the withdrawal of troops through bribing local leaders and appear to have acted to scupper renewed British attempts to pursue this option.

The objections of President Karzai are even more compelling. The unilateral action of European and British intelligence agencies has, according to Karzai and his supporters, weakened the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan state. Western bribes may create a face-saving way of withdrawing troops from harm’s way, but they can undermine frameworks which attempt to provide a long-term political solution.

The authority of the Karzai government over Helmand province is a tenuous one. The governor of the province, Asadullah Wafa, only took over at the start of 2007 and he has been keen to assert his and Karzai’s authority against oppositional leaders (8). This authority was undermined when negotiations with rival local leaders took place through unilateral British and EU intervention, rather than under the authority of the government in Kabul (9). The British policy of appeasing local opposition leaders, through buying their support and allowing the harvesting of opium poppies, has directly undermined the Afghan government’s ability to mediate and regulate its own relationship with the troubled province (10). On one hand, British ministers praise the Karzai government as a shining example of ‘democratisation’ in Central Asia; on the other, they implicitly undermine the authority of that government by constantly doing things behind its back.

The expulsions of British and European diplomats have highlighted the problems of both military and diplomatic attempts to deal with local leaders who have little sympathy for the Karzai regime. It appears that international intervention cannot stabilise the state in the name of the Karzai government, either through bombing or by bribing opposition forces. International policy has effectively marginalised the Afghan government in Kabul rather than strengthening it, increasing the sense that there is a lack of political direction, with international interlocutors operating in a strategic vacuum. According to one Western official in Kabul: ‘There is an urgent need for greater clarity in who we should be talking to, when and why.’ (11)

In the absence of a clear external political goal, the protection of the lives of international troops assumes a greater priority. For this reason, it is little surprise that British and European diplomats sought to pursue short-term local solutions to avoid military clashes with anti-government forces.

However, short-term policy solutions do not make up for the lack of clear strategic political goals; instead they merely serve to highlight the incoherence of the international mission in Afghanistan. It has been the lack of strategic purpose and the reliance on short-term solutions which has brought the British into conflict with the US over which strategy to pursue, and which has soured relations with the Afghan government by undermining its authority in the region.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler argued that in Britain’s theatrical war against the Taliban British troops were definitely not fighting the good fight and described how Kosovo’s ‘independence’ meant dependence on the UN. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at
spiked issue War on Terror.

(1)Taliban fight needs 3,000 extra troops, The Sunday Times, 30 December 2007

(2) Taliban fight needs 3,000 extra troops, The Sunday Times, 30 December 2007

(3) Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban , Guardian, 27 December 2007

(4) Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban , Guardian, 27 December 2007

(5) Building proper peace in Afghanistan – and fast, Sunday Telegraph, 30 December 2007

(6) Diplomats expelled “at behest of the US”, Sunday Telegraph, 30 December 2007

(7) Hope of swift return as diplomats in Taliban row leave Kabul, Guardian, 28 December 2007; Meeting the Taliban: row over talks exposes divide, Guardian, 27 December 2007

(8) UN push to stop Afghan expulsions in Taliban row, Guardian, 27 December 2007

(9) Hope of swift return as diplomats in Taliban row leave Kabul, Guardian, 28 December 2007

(10) Profile: Assadullah Wafa: Helmand governor with a history of clashing with British, Guardian, 27 December 2007

(11) Meeting the Taliban: row over talks exposes divide, Guardian, 27 December 2007

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Topics Politics


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