TOBIAS ELLWOOD: Why I shook the Taliban's hands

TOBIAS ELLWOOD: Why I shook the Taliban's hands
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

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

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