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Here's What It's Like to Drink Tea with the Taliban

If you're negotiating with fundamentalist insurgents in Afghanistan, former Royal Air Force officer Emma Dutton says it helps to drink chai with them.
Emma Dutton with the pet cat on camp. Photo courtesy of Emma Dutton

Emma Dutton is into all the usual things: independent cinema, martial arts, and training for Tough Mudder with friends. That, and taking tea with the Taliban.

At least, that's how Dutton passed her twenties—serving intense tours at a military base situated in the arid desert land of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. At the age of 23, Flight Lieutenant Dutton cut her teeth as an engineering officer in the UK's Royal Air Force, managing 46 personnel under her.


After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, her career spanned five tours totaling almost seven years of the war-torn country; one tour as an engineer, and four as a specialist working directly with Afghans to obtain information that saved the lives of coalition and Afghan forces as well as those of the local population. In May, she was honored by the Queen for her services in May 2015 with an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

Her military career frequently involved meeting with members of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that occupied most of Afghanistan, in order to help the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) campaign against the illegitimate regime. In a world where media sound bites and political rhetoric characterize the reporting of military conflict, Dutton's life offers never-before-heard perspectives on the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Broadly: How did your military career come about?
I'd never envisaged a career in the RAF. It happened on a whim, actually. When I was 17, I decided last minute to apply for a military bursary for university. The military lifestyle appealed to me, and the RAF offered sponsorship if you wanted to become an engineering officer. I went for officer selection at RAF Cranwell, passed the tests and was given a bursary. Although you're at uni as a normal student, it's also like the reserves, so you have a certain number of commitments to training and overseas expeditions. I got to do some awesome things; I was part of the first military attachment in India after the tsunami of 2004, I learned to scuba dive and parachute, and was on an attachment that went to Tanzania for a month to build an orphanage. Once you're sponsored, you're then obligated to serving a number of years with the military.


I was 21 when I started officer training, and after 18 months I began my first job, managing a flight of 46 people; mostly men, almost all of which were older than I was. When we deployed to Afghanistan, I then managed a team of around 15 men. I had enormous responsibilities for a 23 year old on that first job, and somehow, I managed not to fuck it up.

Dutton standing in front of an air traffic control tower at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Emma Dutton

How did you make the move from engineering to intelligence work?
I did one tour of Afghanistan as an engineering officer and really enjoyed it. I was very lucky to have experienced the most interesting operational role for my rank. After I came back from tour I knew I had to find something new to pursue. Working in a more specialized role and obtaining life-saving information seemed like an opportunity to actually make a difference. As an engineer I had a great time and felt like I was contributing, but I didn't feel like I was having much impact on people's lives. I was always fascinated by Afghanistan, it's got a very rich culture and history; plus, I enjoyed listening and engaging with people, so I decided to go for it. I applied for the selection in June 2010, passed the course in September, and was deployed to Afghanistan in my new role in January 2011.

Some of the subjects I interviewed hadn't seen any women who weren't completely covered, except their mothers or sisters, let alone any Western women.

What was it like interacting with the Taliban?
As a woman, I was a bit of a novelty. Some of the subjects I interviewed hadn't seen any women who weren't completely covered, except their mothers or sisters, let alone any Western women. From my perspective, they viewed women as a bit of a 'third gender;' we weren't considered to be women, nor men, but something in-between. They also knew that you were educated, and respected you for it. So my gender was an advantage because it was a dislocation of expectation, and you could harness the effect of that in your conversations.


Whilst interviewing members of the Taliban, I had the opportunity to develop relationships with often heavily indoctrinated people, sometimes over a period of months in order to develop trust. Any rapport-building process starts with basic ritual and making that person feel safe and comfortable before you can progress onto discussing opinions, beliefs, and influencing their behaviours.

The country is absolutely riddled with mental health problems, because of the trauma and tragedy that people have experienced.

With Afghans, the rapport building process starts with chai and trivial chat. The art of this process is to create a conducive atmosphere, build enough trust by escalating up the rapport ladder so they reveal information to you, but avoiding direct questioning lines which could intimidate or upset people; all through using your personality and a set of influence skills (what my colleagues and I now teach through my company, AIT). You could track the tangible effect we were having through the information we collected, because it translated into protecting the UK, allied forces, and civilians. That's pretty powerful.

Many Afghans I spoke to were active insurgents and had been responsible for the deaths of civilians and ISAF troops. They were also among some of the smartest, funniest, friendliest people I've ever met. Some of their circumstances are tragic; people that have had no choice in their lives, or who may have been forced or blackmailed into doing terrible things. Some of them have only ever experienced a particular brand of Islam. Some have only ever known abuse, or seen the inside of a madrasa. Some have never had anyone pay them a scrap of interest before. It's interesting, then, to build rapport through the power of conversation.


Dutton standing by a Typhoon jet on a training exercise in the UK. Photo courtesy of Emma Dutton

What were the general challenges of interviewing the Taliban?
In this country, if someone commits a criminal act and there's evidence to confirm that, when you demonstrate that knowledge to the person, they understand the argument. With the Afghan culture, which is built on hospitality, honour, and more intangible concepts, logic doesn't stick. Even if you know someone's lied to you, and you had lots of logical arguments to explain to them how you know, such as fingerprints on an IED, or DNA on a weapon, you wouldn't get anywhere.

There are three main challenges here: Firstly, a lack of education (NOT intelligence) means having to explain something as abstract to them as DNA can take hours. Secondly, logic doesn't resonate with the culture, usually resulting in a fatalistic mindset and a reliance on God's will as rationale for every conceivable action. Thirdly, in the psyche of the Pashtun male, it's very dishonorable to have lied. Therefore, even if you know they've lied and they know they've lied, you have to give them an alternative way of telling the truth. If you accuse them of lying, they will lose respect for you and refuse any alternative to the incorrect information, in order to avoid acknowledging it as a lie. You will see no movement in their mindset as a result.

Did your experiences alter your life perspectives?
I realized life is really unfair. Quite often, people do terrible things simply because they happen to have been born in a certain part of the world within a certain family, culture and circumstances. There is no clear cut right and wrong. Some of the Taliban I met might have been really great fathers, who just wanted to support their families and put shoes on their kid's feet. In any case, we weren't there for anything custodial or evidential; least of all to judge. We were there to listen and talk to people, and get access to the life-saving information in their minds by building relationships.

Read More: Meet the Women Leading Afghanistan's Tech Revolution

I was particularly affected by the stories of the women of Afghanistan, even though I've only met a handful. There are very few groups of people in history that have been so horrifically treated over the past 30 years. Afghans under 45 won't remember anything other than war in their life. You can't go anywhere in the country without seeing its visible signs, or talk to an Afghan without them being affected by it, physically or otherwise. The country is absolutely riddled with mental health problems, because of the trauma and tragedy that people have experienced. And it's not just a result of the recent ISAF conflict; it's decades and centuries of other countries treating Afghanistan like an open field for conflict.

How has your career in the military served you for the future?
It's made me resilient beyond anything I think I could possibly experience in the civilian professional world. The military work ethic, humility and integrity can't be found elsewhere. I feel like there's nothing I couldn't attempt in my life now. My reference points are so different from other people's because many haven't been pushed and don't know their limits. There's no doubt that my time in the military has completely informed my life, and shaped me to be the person I am today.