In an important front-page story in the Guardian, Michael Semple, the Irish UN official arrested in Afghanistan at Christmas — along with British EU official Mervyn Patterson — and subsequently expelled for posing a threat to national security by making contact with the Taliban, has robustly defended his actions.
British Royal Marines in Helmand province. Expelled UN official Michael Semple insists, “There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency,” and advocates a policy of wooing insurgents away from the Taliban.
In an interview with Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Irish correspondent, Semple — described just five months ago by the British Ambassador to Afghanistan as a man who “speaks fluent Pashtu, and understands the grain and granularity of Afghan society better than almost any other foreigner” — insisted that he and Patterson were the victims of local political rivalries, and pointed out, in a concise but significant critique of Western policy, that a purely military solution to the Taliban problem is impossible. He added that, given the potential fluidity of regional Afghan politics, two-thirds of current Taliban supporters could be persuaded to turn against the Taliban. As an example of how shifting political allegiances are not only significant, but have, historically, been overlooked and misunderstood by the West, he also spoke about the case of Haji Naeem Kochi, a tribal leader who was sent to Guantánamo and released in September 2004.
In the interview, Semple said that a local leader in Helmand province had falsely blamed him and Patterson for talking to “one of the irreconcilables” — i.e. insurgents linked to al-Qaeda. Insisting that they had done no such thing, he said that the local leader had “totally manufactured” the controversy to guard the resources given to him by the central government, for one simple reason: he was afraid that his power base would crumble if former insurgents and former Taliban members were brought into the peace process. “We were victims of local politics initially and being seen to take on the foreigners — in this case us — is seen as very popular in many places in Afghanistan. We were soft targets and the whole thing was spun well by him,” Semple said. He added, crucially, “There is a critical difference between what is discreet and what is covert. What we were doing was simply discreet because that was what was required. But it was totally in line with official policy to bring people in from the cold.”
As an example of bringing insurgents “in from the cold,” Semple told McDonald about Mullah Mamuk, a leader in Helmand province, whose local enemies told western forces in 2001 that he was a terrorist. When a reward was then offered for his capture on a widely-distributed “Wanted” poster, Mamuk approached the Taliban for protection, as Semple explained: “So naturally Mamuk goes to the Taliban to feel safe and takes those men he commands who are loyal to him with him, shows Taliban commanders the poster and says ‘It looks like I am now with you.’ He added, “The authorities simply got the wrong guy and drove him into the Taliban’s hands. Now he is currently fighting against the British in Helmand but in my opinion local leaders like Mamuk can be won back over again.”
Advocating the creation of a “network of patronage” to lure men like Mamuk away from the Taliban, Semple continued, “It’s worth remembering there are an awful lot of Mullah Mamuks out there who can easily switch sides away from the Taliban and that is why I firmly believe that with good management you could break two-thirds of the insurgents away from those irreconcilables.”
Providing examples, he explained that some of the men who were sent to Guantánamo during the first two years after the US-led invasion in October 2001 had in fact “switched sides to the Karzai government.” “Take Haji Naeem Kochi, someone I have known for a very long time in Afghanistan,” he said. “After 9/11 and the invasion he ended up doing time in Guantánamo Bay. When he came back … I met up with him. The first thing I asked him was did he learn any English and he replied: ‘Yes, but all I learned was sit up and sit down from the American guards.’ Yet despite doing time in Guantánamo he is now a member of the peace commission aimed at reconciling all Afghans.”
The case of Haji Naeem Kochi is significant, not only for what it reveals about the US-led forces’ misunderstandings about tribal allegiances in Afghanistan, but also because it led to large numbers of regional pro-Karzai leaders — several dozen at least, and possibly more — being sent to Guantánamo. Kochi was just one of many startling examples, as I explain in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 17:
“Having failed to round up a single Taliban leader throughout 2003, only one of the 90 men captured in this period was flagged as a significant catch — and even he turned out to be nothing of the sort. 62-year old Haji Naeem Kochi, a tribal elder of the nomadic Kochi tribe, was the object of a manhunt from the earliest days of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ when the Americans bombed numerous locations in an attempt to kill him. Human Rights Watch reported that defense department officials told them that he ‘was a former Taliban official and a “scumbag” involved in smuggling arms over the Pakistani border,’ but when he was finally captured by US forces, on his way to meet President Karzai to discuss a tribal dispute on 1 January 2003, his reputation seemed to vanish like a mirage. Instead of validating the Americans’ concerns, this frail, unthreatening man, who suffered from diabetes and wore a surgical belt after one of his kidneys was removed, was so insignificant that he was released from Guantánamo in September 2004.”
At the conclusion of his interview, Semple drew a comparison between “what he and Patterson were seeking to achieve in Helmand and what the US had done in Anbar province in Iraq, where American forces opened talks with Sunni insurgents which resulted in setbacks for al-Qaeda,” as McDonald described it. “There are many people who served with the Taliban regime who are now well-placed inside the Karzai regime or else are pillars of Afghan society,” Semple said. “They are now living at peace with [it] even if they are critical of it, which is their right. Our mandate was to support the government’s reconciliation process — that’s what we were doing in Helmand before Christmas. There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency. There isn’t a serious actor in Afghanistan who says the only way forward is to fight your way out.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
[…]  Andy Worthington, “Expelled UN Official Criticizes Afghan Policy re: Taliban and Defends ex-Guantanamo Detainee,” Andyworthington.com (February 16, 2008), http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/02/16/expelled-un-official-criticizes-afghan-policy-re-taliban… […]
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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