Britain should hold official talks with the Taliban for the first time in order to bring peace to Afghanistan, the Defence Secretary has told MPs.
Gavin Williamson said it was important for the UK to ensure as much stability as possible in Afghanistan, and that Britain was committed to ensuring peaceful elections in the country due later this year.
He admitted it would be “incredibly painful for many people to accept, given the price paid” but warned that “there are many malign reasons why some countries are involved in Afghanistan [so it is] important we energise the peace process”.
Speaking to the Defence Select Committee, he called the offer from the Afghan government for unconditional peace talks with the Taliban “open and generous” and said: “We need to find a long term solution to Afghanistan and bring all participants around a table.”
Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, said in February he would recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political group as part of efforts to end the 16-year war. A ceasefire and prisoner exchange were proposed to energise the process.
“The Taliban are expected to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation, to peace talks,” President Ghani said at the time.
The Defence Secretary’s comments are the first time a serving government minister has gone on the record in calling for direct talks with the Taliban.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement in March that Mr Ghani’s approach was “clear and flexible” and offered the people of Afghanistan “a road to peace, prosperity and stability”.
He said Britain, along with the regional and international community, stood united in support of this determination to bring the violence to an end.
“I strongly believe that the only solution to the conflict in Afghanistan is through a political settlement, led and owned by Afghans themselves” he said. “Afghanistan’s future must be decided through dialogue, not the gun.”
Mr Williamsonmade the comments on the day 16 people were killed in an explosion in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Security forces were trying to move a container full of explosives when the blast happened.
Britain, the US and NATO concluded combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, but have maintained a presence in the country since in training and mentoring roles.
Afghan forces have struggled to contain a resurgent Taliban threat in recent years. Last week it was reported Britain is to send an additional 450 troops to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, to help provide security.
However, Mr Williamson refused to say whether or not these troops would be used in a combat role, but promised an oral statement would be made to the House of Commons in the near future.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said the UK “strongly advocates a peaceful political settlement as the only route to lasting peace in the region”, adding: “This process must be Afghan-led, and we are working closely with international partners to support Afghanistan.”
Britain has never formally held talks with the Taliban, but The Daily Telegraphreported in 2007 that the Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, had been involved in secret talks with the group, then still fighting against British forces.