Negotiating with the Taliban is too little, too late – western allies need to fix the socioeconomic mess started long before 9/11
Memory spans are short in modern politics, but even by those standards the relative ease with which the discourse on Afghanistan has shifted from fighting the Taliban to negotiating with them is remarkable.
Even more incredible is our collective refusal to admit the obvious. The Taliban are stronger than ever because the US chose a heavy-handed, unilateral military response to the 9/11 attacks. What’s more, the insurgency is now more ideologically aligned with al-Qaida than ever before. Thanks to bin Laden’s network, the Taliban have changed from rag-tag army to deadly insurgency and, most ominous of all, they believe they are more than a match for the world’s only superpower.
Some will say that the climate following the deadly attacks on the US nearly nine years ago made it impossible to take the more nuanced approach now being attempted. Diplomacy back in 2001 was left to the Taliban. As the US began its carpet bombardment of Afghanistan, however, Mullah Omar expressed a willingness to hand bin Laden over provided the US gave evidence of his culpability. Any extradition, he added, would have to be to a neutral country and not the US.
The offer was flatly rejected in October 2001, along with an earlier suggestion to try bin Laden in a domestic or international tribunal. It is impossible to judge in hindsight the veracity or practicality of these overtures. But as US-led foreign and Afghan forces meander through an increasingly violent and destabilising war that has killed thousands of Afghans and hundreds of foreign nationals, including 253 British soldiers, the decision to favour unilateral war over diplomacy has proved disastrous.
The Afghan war is also a political liability for foreign governments embroiled in it. A majority of voters in most countries involved in the International Assistance Force for Afghanistan, including Britain, want their troops to return home. Western planners have realised that there can be no hope of a withdrawal in the foreseeable future unless there is dialogue with the Taliban.
This is no simple task. On the one hand, negotiating with the Taliban is a victory for realism. They may represent one of the most fanatical and oppressive streams of Islam, but the Taliban are now the dominant social movement in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population, the country’s largest ethnic group who inhabit the regions of the south and east – major frontlines in the current conflict. Support for the Taliban among Pashtuns, far from universal before 2001, has increased because the US and its allies decided to invade their country.
But these facts should not detract from other truths. There can be no doubt that the Taliban and the warlords backing the pro-US regime in Kabul pose a long-term threat to the development of Afghanistan, particularly for its women and minorities. New research suggests that support for the Taliban is based not on ideology but social ties, cultural affinities and the hope that the insurgents can improve living conditions more than President Karzai’s hopelessly corrupt administration.
Karzai is a product of the US decision to unilaterally invade Afghanistan. Along with resentment towards the US for installing the Karzai regime, however, many Afghans are also openly hostile to regional powers, especially Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for promoting conflict in their country even after the Soviets left in 1989. Interestingly, Afghans view India more favourably than any other foreign presence in their country – up to 71% of them according to one recent opinion poll – including the UN. It cannot be a coincidence that there are no Indian soldiers in Afghanistan. India has invested billions of dollars in developing the country’s civil infrastructure. India’s involvement in Afghanistan is not an act of charity and it has a long history of supporting former Northern Allies warlords widely implicated in atrocities. But in post-2001 Afghanistan, the soft power of Indian development assistance has accrued enormous goodwill.
An extensive survey carried out by the Asia Foundation last year found that the central thing on Afghan minds is not the Taliban or the US, but access to education and employment for both men and women. And as Khalid Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, points out, poverty is a far greater cause of death in Afghanistan than war.
In the rush to end our participation in the Afghan war it is important to remind ourselves that what Afghanistan needs is not an end to foreign involvement but an acceptance that it was a victim of the international community’s collective interference long before bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks.
Talking to the Taliban should not mean appeasing extremists in exchange for a quick withdrawal. Rather, solving this morally ambiguous conflict will require a commitment to engage with all Afghans over a long period of time.