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Former British Foreign Minister Miliband: 'The West Should Work With the Taliban'

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Originally published in Metro.

When David Miliband was Britain's Foreign Minister, his country was on friendly terms with Muammar Gaddafi. In 2009 Scotland released from prison on humanitarian grounds a Libyan agent who was convicted of killing 270 people in the Pan Am Flight 103 crash in December 1988. London said it wasn't involved in releasing Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. But, wrote Britain's ambassador to Libya in a Wikileaked cable, not releasing him could have had disastrous implications for British interests in Libya.

Since leaving office last year, Miliband has been trying to solve everyone's foreign policy nightmare: Afghanistan. Shortly before delivering his plan for Afghanistan, Miliband spoke with me at his office in the Houses of Parliament, where he also explained why maintaining good relations with Gaddafi was a good idea.

Your Afghanistan speech is called "Mending It, Not Just Ending It." If we don't mend it, what will happen?
If we don't have a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, we won't meet the 2014 withdrawal deadline we've set for ourselves. That will endanger what we've accomplished in Afghanistan so far, and will increase the risk of ethnic violence. The warlords will also be able to strengthen their grip and it will become even more difficult to make progress.

Is there a danger of violence spreading outside Afghanistan's borders?
It has already spread to Pakistan. Pakistan is a tinderbox because it has chronic, long-term problems and acute short-term problems. Every Western country should be afraid of what might happen in Pakistan. It's also a country with nuclear weapons. It has had military rule for 30 of its 60 years, which indicates how fragile its democratic institutions are.

But does mending Afghanistan even make sense? Just the other day angry Afghans beheaded several UN staff members.
We should be sponsoring a political process of negotiations involving all Afghan clans and tribes in order to deliver a political settlement. A counterinsurgency is never ended by military effort. It can only be ended through talks. We, the West, have to clarify what our bottom line is, because we have substantial interests there. The absence of such a political framework is holding back all the efforts we've made. It involves some quite hard choices, because I'm talking about holding talks with people who are firing at our troops, but it's the only way in which this war can be brought to an end.

How reliable would such partners be?
The Taliban are not going to go away, no matter how many of them are killed. NATO's numbers suggest there are more Taliban now than in 2005. They represent a minority strand of conservative Islam that exists within the South and the East of Afghanistan. Now, there can be no question of handing over the country to the Taliban. That would be a betrayal both of our security interests and the interests of other Afghans, who aren't able to live a normal life. But the Taliban have to be part of a political solution, because they're not going to be eradicated. The Western powers need to sponsor and support a UN mediator who will talk to all parties. We also need a constitutional settlement that recognizes Afghanistan's decentralized nature. We need to sort out the civilian command. At the moment there's a unified military command, but five-six-seven leading people on the civilian side. And we need to engage Pakistan's neighbors. All of the neighbors need to be brought together in a council of regional stability. The truth is that the internal solution in Afghanistan will never hold unless the neighbors support it.

Who, exactly, would these partners be? Even President Karzai is accused of corruption.
There's a stench of corruption. It's estimated that bribes account for 25% of Afghanistan's GDP. That's what happens in incredibly poor countries with a lot of resources. We have to recognize that it's a country that's of military interest to us because it's a incubator for global terrorism. We need security forces, but we'll never create security without a political solution.

Who is the best person to spearhead this?
A UN envoy.

And who should that envoy be?
Someone from the Muslim world, not somebody from the West. It should be someone who is able to speak as a Muslim to all the parties.

In a cost-benefit analysis, can Western leaders justify being involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya?
Cut-and-run is very dangerous, especially after 10 years of effort. But just carrying on as normal isn't enough either. Look at the conflicts in Malaya and Algeria, even Northern Ireland. A political solution is absolutely critical, but it needs to be given political drive, too.

How can we make sure that Libya doesn't become another Iraq or Afghanistan?
There's no question of putting boots on the ground in Libya. The international coalition had an opportunity to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Libya, and we did. Libyans will have to sort out their own future. It won't become another Afghanistan because it's not a base for al Qaeda. If you're able to prevent slaughter and you don't, then you're morally culpable.

Is there also a selfish interest in getting involved?
If Gaddafi had snuffed out the Libyan uprising it would have sent a very bad message about the entire Arab Spring. There's a strategic interest in establishing stability in the Middle East on the basis of consent, not repression.

Not so many years ago Colonel Gaddafi was a welcome guest in the West. Is this an embarrassment to leaders like you, who were friendly with him?
He never came to park his tent in London. Imagine today, if Gaddafi had not renounced his WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] program. His decision in 2003-2004 to stop supporting international terrorism, including IRA terrorism in Britain, was right. In other words, engagement helped. Does that mean that engagement on its own was enough to bring him away from repression? It obviously wasn't.

If the West hadn't been welcoming Gaddafi, he'd be...
More dangerous!

Would he be using nuclear weapons now?
He certainly had many weapons of mass destruction, so he'd be more dangerous than he is now.

The United States has ended its participation in the airstrikes on Libya. Can the conflict be won without U.S. support?
122 of the first 124 missiles were American, so America was an essential partner. The point of a coalition is that you have a range of partners. Turkey is involved, Qatar is involved, the UK and France are involved. Even the Swedes are involved.

Is this a chance for the UK to profile itself as a leading power again?
I don't think one should look at it in those terms. The campaign simply shows that multilateralism works.

One of the results of the Arab Spring is the influx of refugees at Europe's shores. How should this issue be handled?
It just shows that we live in a small and connected world. This global village needs to be governed properly. In a village, if your neighbor's house is on fire, your house is on fire. If Libya is on fire, there are consequences for its neighbors, even if they're across the water.

But now the refugees are already there. What's the next step?
There's a Europe-wide interest in a stable Middle East. We need to mobilize our resources to build something like a Marshall Plan for the region.

We're in a recession where governments have to make budget cuts. Is it good use of public funds to be involved in international conflicts?
Sometimes you have no choice. We're not involved in these conflicts as part of some kind of Keynesian stimulus package. We're involved because it's a necessity. The necessity can be one of interest or one of morality. In the Libyan case, if the West has the power to prevent slaughter and doesn't, and slaughter happens, that's a grave day. That's what happened in the Balkans in the 1990's, and it's only right that that we try to prevent it from happening again. Stalemate is better than slaughter.

Your fellow Brit Lady Ashton coordinates EU foreign policy, but has come in for heavy criticism. Has she failed?
I think the criticism is unfair. EU foreign policy is made up of its respective countries.

But is there a case to be made for a stronger person as foreign minister of the EU?
The institutional setup is the right one. This can be a very strong position when the EU member states are ready to act together instead of conducting foreign policy in a bilateral fashion.

So next time there's a conflict, Lady Ashton, not Nicolas Sarkozy, will be coordinating the response?
We have eight or ten joint EU missions right now. That's a good thing. Europe should be a global player.

Center-right parties are defeating Social Democrats all over Europe. Is social democracy passé?
No. It's taking a break, which is not very good. What's happened is pretty simple. The right was losing in the 90's, and now it has adjusted and become the center-right. The key for us Social Democrats is to retake that ground and expose this situation.

But even a solidly Social Democratic country like Sweden now has a center-right government...
That's because the Swedish Christian Democrats got tired of banging their heads against a wall and in effect became Social Democrats. They can as "compassionate conservatives", though I'm sure that a lot of what they're doing isn't very compassionate. We have to recognize that there has been just such a move by the center-right to reoccupy the center ground.

What should the motto of Social Democracy be in the year 2011?

Equality, Fraternity, Liberty was pretty good 200 years ago. Social Democracy is about giving people more power over their own lives and protecting them from dangers. Power and security should be the motto of modern Social Democracy.