British Official Recommends Talking With Taliban

Britain's Secretary of International Development Douglas Alexander has returned from a visit to Afghanistan. He talks with Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne about the benefit of holding discussions with the Taliban.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Western powers are trying to win a war in Afghanistan with two big weapons -the first is extra troops, the other is extra money, which is the concern of Douglas Alexander. He's Britain's secretary of state for international development, so he is overseeing Britain's increase in aid to Afghanistan.

He's just finished a visit to the country's most war-torn province. He's here in Washington. Welcome to the program.

Secretary DOUGLAS ALEXANDER (Secretary State for International Development, Great Britain): It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: What did you see when you were in southern Afghanistan, Helmand Province?

Sec. ALEXANDER: Well, I started in Camp Basim(ph), which is now the home to a significant number of British and American troops. We met with a group of first-time voters who are going to be able to exercise their democratic rights for the first time on August the 20th when the national elections take place.

And I then traveled on to Musikalla(ph), which is quite close to the frontline against the Taliban, where I met both local doctors and local teachers who explained to me the importance of security in that part of Helmand Province and their support for the efforts at the kind of development that we're working on.

INSKEEP: That all sounds very hopeful and yet we do get reports of a war that is increasingly difficult, of severe resistance that U.S. and British and other troops face, and of severe economic troubles as well.

Sec. ALEXANDER: We face a formidable enemy, who is determined to set back Afghanistan's progress. They've changed their tactics in recent years because their repeated defeats at the hand the NATO forces mean that they've moved to what's, in technical terms, called asymmetric warfare.

In Koban Parlance(ph) that means that they're using roadside bombs, they're using mines. These cowardly but effective tactics are being used, and that's why our commanders on the ground have had to deploy strategies in recent weeks to clear ground, then to hold that ground, and then for the development effort to follow on behind.

INSKEEP: You were quoted while there as saying that you favor talks with some members of the Taliban. What makes you think that now is a moment when talks -which have often been discussed - could actually succeed with some members of these groups that you call cowards?

Sec. ALEXANDER: Well, where I was in Musikalla, the governor is a former Taliban commander who was brought into the government of Afghanistan by President Hamid Karzai. That's just one example of a process that has been underway for some time with individual fighters leaving the battlefield and seeking a different path.

INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me, I feel like I've heard the exact analysis you just gave about the Taliban for years and that there have even been occasions in the past when Americans have tried to talk with various Taliban elements, when even your government spoke with Taliban elements, when the United States was not at all happy about it. There have been deals, there have been truces. You still got a war.

Sec. ALEXANDER: But that's why the military pressure that is being exerted, both as a consequence of the troop uplift of the U.S. Marines moving into the south, of the heroic and courageous efforts of the British troops is a critical element of an effective counterinsurgency strategy.

Because unless the Taliban believe that they are not going to secure their ends by means of violence, I think significant numbers of them will not countenance renunciating violence and choosing a different path. The political process is ultimately going to be one of the elements of resolution.

Because vital though it is that we weaken the Taliban, we also need to strengthen the Afghan state.

INSKEEP: We're talking with Douglas Alexander, Britain's secretary of state for international development. He's just back from Afghanistan. Our colleague, Renee Montagne, is there now, and let's bring her into the conversation from Kabul. Hi, Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Hello. And hello, Secretary Alexander.

Sec. ALEXANDER: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: All the presidential candidates that I have spoken to here are open to talking to the Taliban, and precisely because they see most of the foot soldiers not really as true believers but as young men - and it sounds sort of prosaic to say - but in need of jobs. How does that position on the part of, you know, I guess important politicians here in Afghanistan affect Britain's position?

Sec. ALEXANDER: Well, I'd probably met the same people that you met. I've met a number of the presidential candidates and I met Hamid Karzai just a couple of days ago. But it seems to me that there is a broad consensus both across Afghan politicians and amongst leading Western politicians, like Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, along with our own prime minister, that there does need to be a political process.

The point that you make about jobs is absolutely fundamental, however, that we need to persuade young men who otherwise are vulnerable to picking up weapons that they have a credible prospect of an alternative livelihood.

MONTAGNE: You know, I'm also curious about something entirely different, and that is the British ministers have compared - and also military people - have compared the campaign in southern Afghanistan to fighting the terrorists that made up the IRA. You know, I'm wondering would that analogy extend to talking to the Taliban as they U.K. ultimately did talk to the - and bring into the fold - members of the IRA?

Sec. ALEXANDER: I think the comparison can be too tightly drawn because there are very different circumstances, they are very different countries and very different situations. But the central point endures that if you read the counterinsurgency manual of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines, if you listen to the speeches of President Obama or Prime Minister Brown, all of them recognize that ultimately there does need to be a degree of both regional reconciliation and reconciliation within Afghanistan.

That needs to be a process laid not by the Americans or by the British but by the Afghan government itself, and that's something I support.

INSKEEP: Granting that you want to increase the military pressure and also improve the quality of the economic aid, what's a realistic limit for the most that you can accomplish?

Sec. ALEXANDER: The development challenge is one that is going to take many years. But in terms of the commitment of British forces and of international forces, I think the right way to look at it is not so much an end date as an end state. What is the end state that we are working for? We want to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan state, to protect its own borders, to repel the Taliban and to keep the country safe from the kind of terrorist threat that ultimately prove to be a threat not just to its own people but to people right across the Western world.

INSKEEP: Are you confident that if you send a quarter of a billion British pounds, which I believe you are over the next several years, to this particular government or near this particular government, that any large percentage of it is actually going to go to the place you want it to go as opposed to somebody's pocket?

Sec. ALEXANDER: Of course we recognize that this is a government that over many decades in Afghanistan has been subject not just to terrible poverty but terrible corruption. This is a tough thing to do well. We spent a lot of time, effort and expertise getting in place systems that allow us to put money into the Afghan state. Because unless we root out the corruption, unless we work with the government, then actually I think people in Afghanistan will worry that the aid effort we're making is just temporary rather than permanent.

INSKEEP: Are you confident that public support in Britain will remain for a number of years to the mission in Afghanistan, particularly given the way that your casualties have gone up in recent weeks and months?

Sec. ALEXANDER: Well, every British casualty, like every American casualty, is a tragedy for the family, for the friends, and for all us. The real question is do people understand why the United Kingdom is there. I think it's vital to the U.K. that Afghanistan becomes a stable and secure state that's able to suppress the kind of violent extremism within its own borders which threatens the international peace and security of the world.

And I believe the British public understands the grave threat that international terrorism poses - not just to the people of the United States but also to the people of the United Kingdom.

INSKEEP: Douglas Alexander, Britain's secretary of state for international development, thanks for coming by.

Sec. ALEXANDER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Renee Montagne, of course, is in Kabul.

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