|Talking with the Taliban
Abdul Jameel was ready for peace. The commander of a small group of Taliban fighters in the province of Wardak, Afghanistan, Jameel was able to persuade his men to surrender to the government in exchange for amnesty and the chance to return to a life of farming or shopkeeping. But he never got that chance. Just weeks after he approached the government, Jameel and several members of his family were gunned down. It is unclear if the Taliban killed him or if old rivals were seeking revenge. Nevertheless, Jameel's story - which quickly spread around the province - provided a potent deterrent to other would-be reconcilers and a lesson in the complexities of talking with the Taliban.
As Afghan President Hamid Karzai embarks on his second five-year term, he maintains that his primary agenda is to bring the war in Afghanistan to a peaceful close through negotiations with members of the Taliban insurgency. Karzai has gone so far as to invite his "Taliban brothers" to "embrace their land" and join him in talks. The U.S. too is growing weary of the war. As President Barack Obama finalizes his new strategy for Afghanistan and deliberates over how many more troops he should send to the front, he is facing pressure to define a clear exit strategy. What was once anathema - talking to an enemy that was overthrown by U.S. forces in 2001 in retaliation for sheltering Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network - is now gaining acceptance, as the generals realize that military tactics alone will not win this war. For many U.S., European and U.N. diplomats as well as Afghan officials, talking with the Taliban seems to be the fastest, and perhaps only, way out of the quagmire. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)
Is it really? Or is a dialogue with the Taliban just another dead end?
For those who think that negotiations are worth trying and that so-called moderate Taliban can be coaxed to break ranks with their extremist leaders, there is a hopeful precedent. Starting in early 2007, tens of thousands of Iraqi insurgents were persuaded to lay down their weapons in exchange for cash and jobs, usually as part of local militias fighting their former al-Qaeda allies. Building on that example, General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan, wrote in his recent assessment of the Afghan war that NATO "must identify opportunities to reintegrate former mid- to low-level insurgent fighters into normal society by offering them a way out." Lieut. General Graeme Lamb, a former head of Britain's special forces who was asked by McChrystal to head the program, which was announced in September, says insurgents need to be offered security, vocational training, jobs and amnesty for past crimes. "This is not rocket science," says Lamb. "Insurgents have been reconciling and reintegrating back into society for centuries. This is about entering a dialogue where they can see opportunities, because the way you counter an insurgency is with a better life." (See pictures of the U.S. Marines' offensive in Afghanistan.)
Both Afghan and Western officials have embraced the new terminology: they seek reintegration for low-level Taliban members who are assumed to be fighting for money or personal grievances, and reconciliation for Taliban leaders who are motivated by ideology. The plan, according to U.S. officials, will be undertaken in concert with the Afghan government. "We think that reintegration, if done right, if done by Afghan leaders and people, helps to create conditions for broader-scale reconciliation," says a U.S. diplomat.
The Taliban leadership, needless to say, has greeted all this with a snort of derision. "The mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are not mercenaries," said Mullah Brader Akhund in a statement. "This war will come to an end when all invaders leave our country and an Islamic government based on the aspirations of our people is formed." Such a denunciation was to be expected. But even those who back the plan worry that Karzai's corruption-riddled government is so detested that money and jobs will not be enough, on their own, to woo fighters to switch sides. "Paying the low-level [Taliban] may work temporarily, but it won't solve the main problems," says Ishaq Nizami, the former head of the TV and Radio Directorate under the Taliban regime. "There is so much corruption and no laws. In many areas the Taliban have been able to bring security and justice, which the government has not done. Even if some fighters turn, they will turn back again when they understand that their lives are not better." For reintegration to work, in other words, Afghanistan needs to have a government worth fighting for. So far it does not.