TOBIAS ELLWOOD: Why I shook the Taliban’s hands

For the past two decades, in the Army and in politics, I have lived the war on terror. I have seen it on the battlefield, managed it in government and felt it daily in my family life. Now, with the murder of fellow Conservative MP Sir David Amess, the dark shadow of fanaticism has fallen over us once again.

It was in 2002 that my brother Jonathan was killed, one of more than 200 innocent lives destroyed by an Al Qaeda-linked terror group in the Bali bombing. It fell to me to travel 8,000 miles to identify his remains.

And this question has stayed with me ever since: what purpose did the death of Jonathan and all those others serve? I was the brother who’d joined the Army and saw active service. I was the one who signed up to be put in harm’s way. Yet it was Jonathan, a teacher attending an international education conference, who was killed.

He’d been catching up with teachers from other schools at a busy Irish Bar in Kuta, a beach town on the Indonesian island of Bali, when two suicide bombers struck in deadly succession – a cruelty that ensured survivors of the first blast would be cut down in the second.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood shook hands with the Taliban – despite the terror organisation killing his brother 

Tobias and his brother Jonathan, pictured here as children. The Tory MP's brother was killed by terrorists in the 2002 Bali bombings

Tobias and his brother Jonathan, pictured here as children. The Tory MP’s brother was killed by terrorists in the 2002 Bali bombings

So I am, perhaps, the last person you’d expect to meet – let alone attempt to understand – the people who gave Al Qaeda sanctuary and support. The people who have done their best to obstruct international attempts to bring stability and freedom to Afghanistan. Who have killed and maimed hundreds of British soldiers for the past two decades.

Yet, last month, in the Grand Sheraton Hotel in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, I came face to face with the Taliban in the most extraordinary encounter of 15 years as an MP.

It’s a particular irony that I was in Qatar as part of a parliamentary delegation which was headed by fellow MP David Amess. He had held a long-standing interest in the Middle East. And, just days away from becoming a terror victim, David had helped arrange the meeting through the Qatari government, which has hosted the Taliban leadership for the past ten years.

The contrast between the gaudy magnificence of the Sheraton and the dusty shacks of Afghanistan could hardly have been greater.

But then the Taliban are in Doha for a reason: to persuade us they are serious, an Afghan government for Afghan people. That they deserve a place in the wider world. They want to convince us of their good intentions. And they need large amounts of money – our money.

There were four of them chatting by the window of the conference suite as I walked in. They turned as one to face me, dressed in imposing black and white attire, complete with turbans. At least they’d left the AK-47s in Kabul.

The largest of the four, the giant Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, welcomed me through an interpreter and we took seats facing each other across a vast wooden table. I thanked him for meeting me, then wasted no time in explaining why I was there.

‘The terrorists who you harboured and defended in Afghanistan were the terrorists who orchestrated the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 innocent victims, including my brother Jonathan,’ I said.

The Taliban, pictured in Kabul, have been consolidating their base over the past few weeks

The Taliban, pictured in Kabul, have been consolidating their base over the past few weeks

‘Can you assure me the Taliban will not allow this to happen again?’ The smile faded. He realised this was very personal.

The loss of my brother in 2002 had started a journey that would take me across the Middle East and to Afghanistan a dozen times. I want to understand that violent form of Islam which persuades fanatics to hijack a plane or trigger a suicide vest.

But there is even more at stake than that because, after 20 years of bloodshed, this basic truth remains: despite invading Afghanistan and Iraq, despite our fight against IS, despite suffering attack after attack in Britain itself, we have no answer to the extremist warfare now terrifying the West.

It is essential that we understand what people like the Taliban are thinking and that they understand us, too. Today, Afghanistan is on a knife-edge. Much of the middle class has departed. Its international assets are frozen by the US. The Taliban needs solutions, and quickly.

Who can doubt the scale of the crisis when desperate Afghans are pictured selling babies so they can afford to feed their other children? Now, the freezing winter is approaching in a country which is as mountainous as it is poor.

The smiling Amir Khan Muttaqi has been specially appointed as principal negotiator with the West, to promote a moderate image.

Yet even he admitted this to me: if the Taliban – or, more accurately, an alliance of Taliban factions – are in charge, they are not fully in control. Many of their ‘soldiers’ do as they choose, killing and violating those with whom they disagree.

The Taliban knows that if it does depart from a ruthless interpretation of Sharia law, more radical elements could defect to the regional arm of IS – ISIS-K – which is already destabilising parts of the country.

Yet, as I replied, the Taliban leadership will not last a year if it repeats the mistakes of the past and tries to subjugate the population. Afghanistan has changed radically, particularly in the cities, where a new young generation has tasted modern freedoms. The people cannot be crushed as before.

Jon Ellwood, pictured, died after terrorists attacked Bali in Indonesia attacking holiday makers

Jon Ellwood, pictured, died after terrorists attacked Bali in Indonesia attacking holiday makers

The Taliban must grant access and freedom of movement to the international community and its agencies, including groups such as the Halo Trust, specialists in mine-clearance.

According to Muttaqi, ‘they are welcome and they will be safe and you are welcome to visit’.

As for my brother and the others who died with him – what was the Taliban’s response?

Muttaqi replied that the Bali bombing and other such attacks on civilians were wrong and cannot be justified as Islamic.

He assured me that every effort would be made to remove terrorist groups from Afghanistan and, as it happens, I believed him. But we both knew some Taliban rank-and-file are conducting reprisals. I’ll wait a little longer before accepting his invitation to pay a visit.

Is it a betrayal to have a civil conversation with the likes of the Taliban, or be in the same room, given their brutality? It certainly felt like that. But meetings like this must happen, whether we like it or not.

I’d lived with armed terror in Northern Ireland, where I served with the Royal Green Jackets and where the killing only stopped with dialogue.Then there was March 22, 2017. That was the day that Khalid Masood drove a rental car at speed across Westminster Bridge, killing five pedestrians and injuring more than 50. After crashing, he continued on foot through the gates to the Palace of Westminster, stabbing PC Keith Palmer before a protection officer shot Masood dead.

Several of us there attempted to save Keith’s life. For 30 minutes we pumped his chest, an attempt at CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) with the killer lying motionless only a few yards away. We couldn’t save him.

Islamic radicalisation and the deadly results had now reached the gates of our own Parliament.

We’d already seen the London Tube and bus bombings in July 2005, dreadful events that made it clear Islamic extremism is not just a foreign issue but a British one, too.

That’s why, however nauseating it might seem to some, I’d asked to meet the Taliban.

Only by talking can we continue helping 40 million Afghans, who are still coming to terms with our shameful withdrawal. We owe it to them. And only by talking can we help stop the rise of terrorist camps once again.

Britain has long held an important position in world diplomacy, which has helped maintain peace in the West. Our history means we know more about Afghanistan than any other foreign nation.

Yet we fell short. We failed to stand up to the Americans and tell them that their attempt to run the country from Kabul was doomed. Or that peace talks excluding the Afghan government were bound to fail.

For 20 years, we didn’t bother talking to the Taliban. Little wonder that when Donald Trump did stage peace talks in Doha, we weren’t even at the table.

So, a full two months since the Taliban takeover, it was left to me, a mere MP, to stage the first meeting with the new Afghan government.

Where was our own Government?

The cost of this war has been huge. More than 3,500 Nato soldiers including 450 Britons – and at least 50,000 Afghans – paid with their lives. Thousands of our servicemen and women returned with devastating injuries. Many, now utterly confused, ask ‘what was it all for’?

This cannot be how we imagined leaving. It was a monumental own goal, a humiliating failure that has emboldened our Islamist adversaries. For without a stable Afghanistan, we can have no peace – and the same principle applies elsewhere.

Rising threats from countries such as China and Russia will be checked only through collective international efforts and this requires leadership.

Yet America is withdrawing from the world and we, too, are failing to step up to the mark.

Despite a huge increase in public spending, the recent Budget saw a real-terms reduction in the defence budget, which is neither sensible nor wise. Today, the ideology behind the murder of our dear colleague David Amess, of Keith Palmer and indeed my brother still needs to be addressed – and more than ever.

No one can yet explain how 7th Century fundamentalism can be reconciled with the 21st Century but we must keep on trying.

Our core values, democracy, freedom and the rule of law, are timeless, but they need defending.

For a century, we’ve had the means, the desire and the statecraft to help shape the world. But now, as the West loses its sense of purpose, so we in Britain have lost that appetite, too.

We live in increasingly dangerous times. Afghanistan has exposed how feeble we in the West have become.