- Talks will take place in new Doha offices to help secure peace
- Tories warn talks could lead to a sell-out that hands southern Afghanistan back to militants who have killed 444 British servicemen since 2001
- From today all responsibility for security in the country to fall to Afghan soldiers
The UK is set to join peace talks with the Taliban to bring an end to the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan that has cost more than 400 British lives.
The White House announced yesterday that negotiations will begin as early as tomorrow with Taliban representatives in the Gulf state of Qatar.
David Cameron gave his backing to the peace plan and revealed that Britain has been ‘fully engaged’ in the process.
But Tory MPs warned the talks could lead to a sell-out that hands southern Afghanistan back to the militants who have killed 444 British servicemen since 2001. It also emerged last night that Taliban killers are likely to be released as a confidence-building measure during the talks.
Qatari Assistant Foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs Ali bin Fahad Al-Hajri (right) and Jan Mohammad Madani (left) one of the Taliban officials, officially open the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha, Qatar
The Taliban said today that they would open a ‘political office’ in Qatar’s capital, Doha, to conduct peace talks on Afghanistan
Security sources said British intelligence officers had conducted secret negotiations with the Taliban for the past two years to help pave the way for the talks. They also revealed that British spies and diplomats are likely to join in if the initial exchanges suggest that a deal can be done.
Under the terms of the arrangement announced yesterday, the Taliban vowed to break its links with Al Qaeda terrorists in exchange for a role in running Afghanistan when Western combat troops withdraw at the end of next year.
The Taliban said yesterday it would not ‘permit anyone to threaten other countries using Afghanistan soil’.
The announcement was made on the day that Nato handed over control for combat operations to Afghan security forces in every region of the country.
The talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the Taliban has opened an office, will also include representatives of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai.
The United States said it would hold talks with the Taliban at the group’s newly opened an office
A senior official with the Obama administration said: ‘The US will have its first formal meeting with the Taliban in several years in Doha in the next couple of days.
‘I would expect that to be followed up within days by a meeting between the Taliban and the High Peace Council, which is the structure that President Karzai has set up for talks of this nature.’
Insiders said the first meeting with the Taliban would simply be an ‘exchange of agendas’ in which both sides laid out what issues they wanted to address. But US officials said prisoner exchanges would be one topic for discussion.
Senior security sources say Mr Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague gave permission for MI6 officers to begin talking to the Taliban more than two years ago.
A well-placed source said last night: ‘These things do happen. There have been contacts on and off for two years. There are different levels and natures of engagement.
‘Afghans talking to Afghans is something we have encouraged. This could lead to a positive outcome.’
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaking today following a security handover ceremony at a military academy outside Kabul
Mr Cameron acknowledged that talks would be ‘difficult’ for some to stomach, but he said: ‘I have long argued that we need to match the security response in Afghanistan with a political process to try and make sure that as many people as possible give up violence and give up armed struggle and join the political process.
‘That is exactly what I hope can happen with elements of the Taliban. That is the point of the Taliban office in Qatar.
‘We have been fully engaged and involved in this process right from the start, indeed from the moment I became Prime Minister. I think this is the right thing to do.’
He added that ‘we can be very proud of what our Armed Forces have done’ because the proportion of terror plots against Britain emanating from Afghanistan has ‘radically reduced’ since 2001.
Could newly-announced U.S. talks with the Taliban end the conflict in Afghanistan after 12 years?
The Afghan Army has swelled in size since 2007, and now numbers more than 350,000
But Tory MP Bob Stewart, who commanded British forces in Bosnia, warned that the Taliban holds the ‘whip hand’ and negotiators need to ‘get the talks right’ or British forces would have ‘died in vain’.
He said: ‘The Taliban are staying, we are going to get out of the game. Guess who has the whip hand? We’ve got to get this right, otherwise we will have lost all those wonderful men and women in vain.’
General Khodaidad of Afghanistan, the former counter-narcotics minister, said the country’s armed forces would not be able to prevent the return of Taliban control in the south, including Helmand province where British troops have been fighting.
Asked if the south will ‘fall to the Taliban’, he said: ‘The Afghan National Army cannot control Afghanistan for the long term. Some parts of Afghanistan will fall into the hands of the Taliban.’
Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said: ‘The military have always been clear that there needs to be a political solution, but it is very important that the country is not just handed back to the Taliban.’
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (left) shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) during the handover ceremony
This move could start the process of a full withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 18 months