Erm, Ed, “tea with the Taleban” – perhaps it’s time to get a new speech-writer?

by Stephen Tall on September 21, 2009

Reader, it pains me to write this – especially as it means I’m partially agreeing with Iain Dale – but it needs saying. This is what Ed Davey, our shadow foreign secretary said yesterday in his speech to conference:

… it’s time for tea with the Taleban – and tea with the multitude of local tribal Afghan insurgent leaders.

When I first saw it reported that Ed had called for “tea with the Taleban”, I assumed it was a paraphrase ad absurdum – a bit like David Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’, a phrase he never actually uttered. But, no, I’m afraid those were Ed’s actual words.

The problem is not the policy. In fact, Ed explains the Lib Dems’ policy rather well earlier in the same speech:

… now, at last, there appears in the White House to be at least a recognition that the strategy in Afghanistan must change. We have a US President, a US Secretary of State in Hillary Clinton and a US Commander in General McChrystal who all recognise that military might alone cannot win the stable Afghanistan that is needed to prevent Al-Qaeda’s return.

I believe Britain must engage with and help shape this new emerging US strategy. We need not so much a military surge, but a political surge. A political surge for peace. And that means reconciliation. Reconciliation of former enemies. Talking to the Taleban – and the many other Afghan insurgents who aren’t really Taleban. Taking risks. Just as all British political parties took risks, when we backed talks with the IRA.

But the phrase “tea with the Taleban” is just too twee, too trite, for a Lib Dem shadow foreign secretary to utter in a speech. It’s an open invitation for opponents to mock what is otherwise a perfectly sensible strategy for resolving an intractable problem. Can we all just pretend, Ed included, that he never said it, please.