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Seeing is believing in Afghanistan, and dialogue is the only way forward

July 27, 2023 at 4:33 pm

Taliban members held a convoy to celebrate Taliban’s first anniversary of taking over the government, in the capital Kabul, Afghanistan on August 15, 2022 [Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency]

The arrogance and ignorance of the Western media were highlighted a few days ago when a former British army officer-turned-politician was accused of making himself a “useful idiot” for the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Some of his fellow MPs have even tried to oust Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, for posting a video in which he praised aspects of the Taliban’s rule.

Disappointingly, Ellwood has since deleted the offending video clip in which he described Afghanistan as a “country transformed” since the Taliban returned to power two years ago. Tellingly, he questioned why such a transformation had not taken place during twenty years of NATO occupation.

Like it or not, though, Ellwood was speaking the truth. I also have an informed opinion on the issue, but we live in an age where speaking the truth can land you in trouble with journalists who doubt eyewitness accounts and video evidence.

The truth is that after a brutal, unedifying 20-year US war and occupation, where torture and crimes against humanity were committed routinely by NATO forces, Afghanistan is now a country that is enjoying unprecedented security. Hand-wringing media liberals who have never stepped foot in the country but are only too willing to believe hysterical tabloid reports do not want to hear from the likes of Ellwood about any positive aspects of Taliban rule.

“Security has vastly improved, corruption is down and the opium trade has all but disappeared,” he said in his now-deleted video. And he is right. Like me, he jumped in a car and drove considerable distances between Kabul and Kandahar to see for himself what is happening on the ground. I can confirm that such journeys would have been impossible during the occupation years.

READ: UK Tory MP praises Taliban government for ‘totally transforming’ Afghanistan

The Taliban government has enforced a zero-tolerance approach to any and all forms of corruption, which is why the Afghani currency is outperforming the neighbouring Pakistani and Indian rupees. The same zero tolerance has been applied to the opium trade, drug taking and all other drug-related activities. The regime has killed the heroin trade and, incredibly, the impressive result has not really been acknowledge by either the UN or the West. Let us not forget that a few months before 9/11 and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan by the US, George W Bush rewarded the then Taliban regime with a $43 million grant in recognition of its anti-drug policy.

This is well worth thinking about for a moment. The Taliban has ended drug trading, taking and dealing virtually overnight. Can you imagine the headlines if drug enforcement agencies had wiped out the Mexican drug cartels and the drugs which blight America and fuel US crime figures? More than 106,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2021, and the figure is set to increase year by year as the problem spirals out of control.

Little wonder that Ellwood looked shocked when he returned to the country where he had fought as a British Army officer. He could never have anticipated any of this during his time fighting the Taliban. His video for the Halo Trust charity was probably over the top and lavish in praising the efforts of the Islamist regime, but you have to give credit where it is due, and the fact is that Ellwood left Afghanistan with opinions and views that matched mine. He was, like me, coming with on-the-ground knowledge and an informed opinion, and there should be nothing more credible than an eyewitness account.

Sadly, though — and also like me — Ellwood has become the target for the tabloids which shoot the messenger who bears good news that few want to hear. Propaganda pumped out against the Taliban seems to have poisoned and damaged Western minds permanently, especially in the media.

Ellwood’s suggestion that the UK should reopen its embassy in Kabul was viewed as outrageous by journalists, but why not? It is time for Britain to start talking to the Taliban instead of snarling at and savaging every item of good news which comes out of Afghanistan.

And there is plenty of good news, as I reported in MEMO last August. Apart from anything else, the mineral wealth in the country includes an estimated $3 trillion worth of lithium, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones and batteries for electric cars. Little wonder that entrepreneur Elon Musk described lithium as “the new oil”. It also explains why the Chinese are hovering around Kabul poised to snap up lucrative mining opportunities of a kind that could really benefit Brexit-damaged Britain.

Another inconvenient truth is that it is only by dialogue and engagement with the Taliban that we can have any serious chance of influencing the Taliban’s strict interpretation of religious laws and misogynistic treatment of women. If we really do care about the education of girls as much as we claim, for example, how can we not engage with the policymakers in Kabul?

I can’t quite believe that I’m defending a Tory MP, but Tobias Ellwood is right. Britain does need to engage with the Taliban, given that the international community’s hysterical megaphone “diplomacy” of shouting demands through the tabloid media has been pretty much ineffective. What other peaceful options do we have?

READ: Taliban halt Sweden activities in Afghanistan after Quran burning

The head of the Taliban’s Political Office in Qatar told me that there is a hypocritical approach adopted by the West in its dealings — or lack thereof — with the regime in Kabul. “It is a pity that the Western media claim to be built on democracy but are not ready to hear about the reality on the ground in Afghanistan,” said Suhail Shaheen. “Moreover, they want to suffocate the voices of those who want to speak the truth about our country. Isn’t this against their much-acclaimed freedom of speech? We want to engage with the international community and resolve issues where we have differences through dialogue, but the world needs to remember that putting pressure on Afghanistan has always failed as a strategy.”

After the humiliating defeat suffered by the US military, there’s certainly no appetite for another military intervention in Afghanistan. Furthermore, what most critics are reluctant to admit is that the Taliban could not have swept to power without the support or backing of the majority of ordinary Afghans, who have suffered enough. It’s time for the West to put on its Big Boy pants and start talking, because only by talking can the Taliban be persuaded to reopen girls’ schools and allow young women to enrol in universities. Barking at the regime or making threats simply doesn’t work.

How much would a charm offensive cost the West? Whatever it is, it has to be worth it; if, that is, Western concerns about Afghanistan stretch beyond political egos and economic possibilities to the people whose lives have been so badly affected by decades of foreign interference in their affairs. Seeing really is believing, and dialogue with the Taliban has to be the only way forward.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.