“So talking to the Taliban is nothing new..”

Interesting report in the Observer today, where Henry McDonald has been talking to Chris Hudson, who is described as having “played a pivotal role in the Ulster Volunteer Force ceasefire and set up a secret link between the loyalists and the Irish government” [Other than Martin McAleese? – Ed]. Hudson claims that his friend and former Oxfam colleague, Michael Semple, now deputy head of the aid programme for Afghanistan run by the Council of the European Union, and who has just been thrown out of Afghanistan by the government there for holding talks with the Taliban, took a keen interest in The Process™ here.. and sought to apply elements of it there. Whether other important lessons from here were also being exported isn’t clear.. From the Observer report

Hudson said yesterday: “We had a chat in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin six or seven weeks ago. He was over on holiday and was going surfing up at Ballycastle – he’s a real physical character – and then he was spending a week in Dublin. I was telling him about my meetings with the UVF and how things were going.

“He was talking of a process in Afghanistan, if there was a way to get people to come on side. He was saying that the whole Taliban thing is very localised, that people often simply follow a local chieftain who happens to be Taliban and that the Taliban is not an homogeneous group. He speaks Pashtu and he works in areas where it is impossible not to come into contact with them.”

“The problem is that when you do the type of humanitarian work Michael does you are going to come into contact with people associated with the Taliban and try to convince them about what he is doing.

“I met him in the 1990s when Michael and his wife, Yameema, were managers with Oxfam. I was a trustee for Oxfam then. I was in their house in Islamabad and was there when the UVF made their [ceasefire] announcement in 1994. We watched it on the World Service together and drank a toast. I had been speaking to [former UVF leader] Gusty Spence the week before and told him I was going to Pakistan to meet Michael.”

Hudson added that inaccurate reports that the two men were somehow linked to a completely different talks process involving MI6 had put them both in grave danger.

Although if you’re drawing parallels, or even if you’re not, it’s also worth noting Jason Burke’s somewhat different view of such talks

More concerning still is the predictable outrage outside Afghanistan over reports that MI6 or the British government might be “talking to the Taliban”. Of course they are talking to the Taliban, as various people have been doing for years. And they are right to do so.

The Taliban are far from homogeneous. Even the original leadership of the movement that seized power in 1996 included factions of varying degrees of radicalism. Some met US government envoys in 1998. It was a more moderate group – clearly all things are relative – that argued for the successful ban on poppy production in 1999 hoping it would lead to UN recognition. In the runup to the 2001 war, despite the Taliban’s increasing extremism, contacts – often via third parties – continued. So talking to the Taliban is nothing new.

The post-2001 Taliban are even more diverse. There are hardcore ideological elements, with whom it would be impossible to negotiate. But there are many “fellow travellers” who will listen to anyone prepared to make them a better offer.