Taliban host former British military commander for humanitarian talks

James Cowan meets Muhammad Omar's brother, the 'Conqueror of Kandahar' and minister who was former Guantanamo inmate in ground-breaking visit

Former British general James Cowan meets Yusuf Wafa, Governor of Kandahar province. Photo: The Halo Trust
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The Taliban have hosted the first former British commander to return to Afghanistan since the group seized control of the country, The National can reveal.

In a ground-breaking encounter in June, retired general James Cowan, who led the biggest air assault operation against the extremists in Afghanistan, met the brother of former Taliban leader Muhammad Omar, as well as a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner and a warlord known as the “Conqueror of Kandahar”.

Mr Cowan has revealed how he learnt in a series of discussions how the Taliban argued for international recognition to allow Afghanistan to begin functioning under its new dispensation.

As chief executive of Halo, the international demining charity, Mr Cowan was given substantial access to the government that continues to allow his teams to defuse unexploded bombs across vast expanses of the country.

“The message I give to the British and to the West is that the Taliban are the de facto government and whatever one's disagreements with them, we should do business with them if they are willing to behave responsibly,” he told The National.

“If we don't, the people of Afghanistan will suffer so it's really important for some pragmatism to enter the discussion.”

With 3,000 employees in Afghanistan, the majority of them Afghans, Halo made the decision to remain in place during the evacuation of Nato forces in August last year, with mine clearance operations restarting within 10 days of the Taliban takeover.

“We had established good relations with the Taliban government so I was keen to come out and talk to them,” Mr Cowan said.

“I wanted to be sure that as an ex-military commander in Afghanistan, I'd be welcome and to their great credit, the Afghan ministers did welcome me.”

But his first meeting in Kabul was initially awkward, with Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, deputy minister of Disaster Management, having been a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

“He had every reason not to like me and at first he was somewhat reticent, as only a prison sentence in Guantanamo can make you, but after a stilted introduction the mood quickly improved and he was extremely dignified," Mr Cowan said.

Mr Cowan, 58, said he “plucked up the courage” to raise the issue of women’s rights and girls’ education, which the minister said was being addressed.

James Cowan meets Yusuf Wafa, Governor of Kandahar province. Photo: The Halo Trust

The meeting, in mid-June, ended with the minister presenting Mr Cowan with a ceremonial chapan robe.

A week later a major earthquake hit south-eastern Afghanistan and Halo’s armoured mechanical diggers, designed to dig up roadside bombs, were used to clear rubble, helping hundreds of Afghans.

Abdul Manan Omari, the brother of Omar who died in 2013, was “extremely friendly and welcoming” and, given his family connections, had “considerable standing" in Afghanistan, Mr Cowan said.

“Given his conservative pedigree, I was pleased by his pragmatism and desire to co-operate with Halo,” he said. “I felt that these were people who would want to do right by their country."

Mr Cowan described Afghanistan as “remarkably calm” and much easier to travel in safely than before the Taliban takeover. “Afghanistan feels a very different place today from what it was a year ago,” he said.

He described seeing many Taliban soldiers with their long hair, along with the “strange hybrid garb of traditional and military dress”.

He described “young, tough ex-fighters all behaving well” and who greeted him with good manners once getting over the surprise of meeting a westerner.

He also saw women in the streets going about their business, “by no means all are in burqas, even in Kandahar”.

It is the Taliban's spiritual capital and Mr Cowan was forced to wait for some time outside the heavily guarded home of Yusuf Wafa, the governor of the province.

He is known as "Conqueror of Kandahar" and his security team was concerned after a Google search of Mr Cowan’s military past revealed he led British forces in the major airborne assault of Operation Moshtarak in 2010 against Taliban strongholds in Helmand.

“The governor was generous enough not to mention the war and ended the meeting by asking me if I would like to stay for dinner and spend the night,” he said.

James Cowan meets Mawlawi Sharafuddin Muslim, deputy minister of Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs. Photo: The Halo Trust

Establishing a good working relationship with the Taliban has allowed Halo to clear mines from large parts of the country, opening up hectares of land where desperately needed crops can be grown.

The team has begun to clear many roadside bombs in the town of Sangin, where a third of British troop deaths were reported during the war, allowing new power lines to be laid for Helmand’s massive Kajaki Dam, which will bring electricity to two million people.

Mr Cowan reported that there was also a vast stockpile of "really lethal” Nato munitions in the country.

“Unexploded 81mm and 60mm mortar ammunition is present in abundance, but the biggest threat comes from 40mm cannon rounds – their yellow-metal-coloured noses are mistakenly taken for gold, with extensive casualties resulting,” Mr Cowan wrote in an internal Halo report that he gave to The National.

The report outlines three historical models of government that Afghanistan could follow – authorities backed by an external power such as the US, an “indigenous conservative government" or "warlordism leading to civil war”.

He wrote that it was unlikely a foreign-backed government would return “as much as many in the West would like it”.

He said civil war was “highly undesirable, but quite possible if the country is subjected to unsustainable pressures”.

He urged western governments to work with the Taliban regime to “nudge it from the repressive to the pragmatic”.

“I observed a people sick of war and thankful for the peace that has come in the last year," Mr Cowan said.

"I am concerned that the West, angry and bruised by its humiliation, will either seek to punish Afghanistan or worse, simply ignore it.

"A downwards spiral may ensue, which would be bad for Halo, but far worse for the country.”

His visit came before the assassination of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in a US drone strike on Sunday.

Updated: August 09, 2022, 7:32 AM