Talking to the Taliban is Foolish

August 7, 2008

Finally, a voice of reason in the “let’s negotiate with the Taliban” hysteria. From Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of International Crisis Group:

Talking to the Taliban is foolish
By Samina Ahmed
Financial Times
Published: July 24 2008

As the insurgency ramps up, support for “talking to the Taliban” in Afghanistan is increasing. Voices in the United Nations and in Europe favour a new set of negotiations between civil society, political parties and the insurgents, and it is a natural reflex to seek a way out of a seemingly intractable conflict by exploring all available political solutions. But while negotiations are credible and acceptable if they help resolve conflict and save lives, that will not be the case in Afghanistan’s current environment.

The problems begin with identifying those who would be involved in a “new dialogue process”. Afghan civil society is weak at best, and political parties, which have been completely undermined by lack of domestic and international support, are in no position to lobby or feed constructively into national policy formation. And who would represent “the Taliban”? The UN Security Council has formally castigated Mullah Omar and most of his Kandahari leadership, and removing them from the list will not happen quickly. The US, at least, is unlikely to play ball.

The British have suggested talking with mid-level commanders, but it is hard to see how that would address the threats the insurgency poses to Afghan citizens and the state. The likely result would in fact resemble the Musa Qala disaster, a temporary truce UK forces made with the Taliban that strengthened the Taliban’s position by providing them space to regroup and attack again. A “new dialogue process” would offer them this on a national scale. If the British have not learnt much from Musa Qala, neither it seems has the UN.

Nor would such a dialogue address the cross-border aspects of the violence and Pakistan’s formal or informal role in supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Without stemming this, the chances are even greater that an agreement would be a temporary refuelling exercise for the Taliban.

It is far from clear, moreover, that the Afghan government, which cannot survive without substantial international military backing, could implement an accord on its own, provided one is reached at all. And if the outside world has to oversee implementation and enforcement anyway, this hardly meshes with the belief that Afghan patience with international military forces is exhausted – one of the driving ideas behind the talk of a “new dialogue process” – let alone the fact that the Taliban’s primary goal is to oust the international presence entirely.

Most importantly, however, is the basic nature of the enemy some would do a deal with. The Taliban thoroughly reject all the work the international community has done in Afghanistan since the end of 2001. At present, the Taliban top leadership appears to have little interest in negotiations other than on its terms, which include the withdrawal of foreign troops and the re-creation of a Taliban-style “Islamic” state. Would the international community stand by as the Taliban deprived Afghan women and girls of even the basic rights they have acquired since the Taliban’s ousting?

Yet another concern is that negotiations with the Taliban from the internationals’ and Kabul’s current position of weakness would resemble the Pakistani military’s counter-insurgency approach: short-sighted accords that concede territory and political authority to militants. These accords have only undermined the writ of the state and empowered insurgents.

Yes, military force alone is clearly insufficient. And yes, negotiations take time and must begin somewhere. But it is wishful thinking to assume that negotiating with insurgents from a position of weakness would stabilise Afghanistan. Obviously, the international community wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, but this is no way to go about it.

Instead of seeking quick fixes, international attention should focus on a comprehensive strategy with broad-based nation-building at its core. Instead of seeking exit strategies, international troops should remain so long as Afghan security forces, civilian and military, are incapable of protecting the lives of citizens and the security of the state. A new robust military commitment – not just in terms of numbers but also appropriate force structures, configurations and mandates – is the way to go.

If we let Afghanistan sink now, the revitalised Taliban will only come to dominate the country, bringing back all the problems that forced the international community to get involved in the first place.


As the blog ThePolitic put it a while ago, why not simply ask the question like this:

“Negotiate with theocracy that seeks to keep women subservient to men and uneducated, and kill anyone who converts to another religion?”

And then some; i.e. engage in ethnic cleansing, undo virtually all the progressive clauses of the constitution, and marginalize all minorities.

My advice is, get real, people. You may be fooling yourselves, but you ain’t fooling neither the Taliban nor the majority of the people of Afghanistan. Maybe you can appease the Taliban, but that comes at the cost of a fatal blow to the nascent and fledgling democracy in Afghanistan and the alienation of more than half of the country. What then? re-negotiate with them? I mean I am all for inclusion and widening the political spectrum -but consider how would a proposition like this would offend the liberal sensibilities of those who are currently beating the drums of negotiation the hardest: in the aftermath of WWII, what the Germans and the Allies should have done is to have negotiated with the remnants of the Nazis and the fascists instead of trying them in Nuremberg. What all these talking heads are proposing in Afghanistan is no less.

Dr. Abdullah and the Return of the Ousted

April 26, 2007

Ever since being dropped from president Karzai’s cabinet as a result of the 2004 reshuffle, former Afghan minister of foreign affairs Dr. Abdullah has been uncharacteristically acquiescent. Uncharacteristically, I say, given the context of Afghanistan and third world politics. Usually in these settings such high profile dropouts are problematic, and the fact that Dr. Abdullah (and likewise his comrade in arms Marshall Fahim) have proved unwilling (or unable) to be more vocal or active in their opposition to the government only bears good tiding for the country, and bodes well for its political future.

Whether by the force of the circumstances (read American military force) or by the dictate of their own good senses, those who have been sidelined by president Karzai have chosen to abandon the age-old cycle of Afghan politics, and have actually stayed on the sidelines. Further, thanks to president Karzai’s famous personal distaste for sidelining others and his open embrace of assorted rivals and revolutionaries, including not a few undesirables, there are not many who have lost out, thus the absence of a ‘critical mass’ of powerful losers who could turn on the government. (Of course here we are talking about those in the broadly defined political mainstream of Afghanistan, and not the Taliban or those associated with Hekmatyar.)

That is, until recently. The formation of the United National Front (UNF) is a clear sign that those on the sidelines would like to be part of the action. Similarly, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, whose name has not been explicitly mentioned as part of the UNF line-up, has been making pronouncements about the state of Afghan affairs as of late. In fact, in a recent interview Dr. Abdullah raised important and barely veiled concerns about the current government’s performance, the “deteriorating security situation in an ethnically diverse country,” and what he called the government’s “shortcomings in strategic vision.” (Though when asked what he meant by lack of strategic vision, the answer was a muddled tautological mess.)

The recent surge in criticism and political posturing, coincide as it does with the rising tide of insecurity and other travails for the government, goes to show that the initial acquiescence of those who were ousted and marginalized, though partly inevitable in the face of American backing of the Karzai administration, has also been due in part to the fact that the government of Afghanistan was going through its probationary period. Now that its mettle has been tested, and by many an observer’s standards, it has not passed the test, the marginalized few see a clear opportunity in criticizing the government and posturing as an alternative leadership.

If these lines read like an accusation of opportunism, they are not. Quite the contrary: this is a welcome note.

Concerted political opposition is one of the few mechanisms by which democratic governments are held accountable. Even if election season is still far away; even if the current government has the wholesome political, military, and economic backing of the world’s sole hyper-power (and the few who are reluctantly going along, mainly to save face); even if political parties are so nascent in Afghanistan that they have not a hope or a prayer of winning nation-wide, cross-ethnic elections anytime soon; and even if there are far too many bad memories attached to the names of those who currently pose as alternatives; even so, the mere consciousness of an alternative, and a political opposition increases the ‘supply’ in the ‘marketplace’ that is a democratic polity, and is bound to have a positive impact on the government’s performance. This is why political opposition -granted that it remains in the mainstream of national political discourse, eschews extremism, and does not resort to violence- is indispensable to the democratic process in Afghanistan and should be welcomed. This is also the spirit, incidentally, in which the criticisms put forth by the UNF leadership and by Dr. Abdullah more recently have to be used by the government as a laundry-list of its own failings to be addressed.

Karzai Criticizes New Front, Alleges Outside Backing

April 6, 2007


Since the announcement of its formation in mid-March, the United National Front has generated a lot of buzz. Thanks to early reports on BBC Persian and a few non-media sources here and there, this blog was one of the first to pick the story, and try to make sense of its oddball composition and line-up. (Read previous posts Old Guard Lining Up… and Update on New Front… )

Now, returning from his trip to New Delhi where he secured Afghanistan’s membership into SAARC, president Karzai has joined the fray. BBC Persian reporter Marzia Adeel reports that while the press conference was nominally held to mark the president’s trip to India and the regional summit, most of the journalists peppered him with questions about the new political front that has decidedly postured itself at odds with Karzai’s policies.

Responding to questions about the new front, the president was quick to accuse it of enjoying the backing of Afghanistan’s neighbors through their respective embassies in Kabul. While the president did not name any names or offer any evidence to back his claims (save for saying that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Directorate were investigating possible links), his comments are sure to bring the new group under scrutiny and perhaps even cost them politically. And for good reason: certain faces among the UNF’s leadership have well-established, time-tested, and undeniable links to regional stakeholders such as Iran, Pakistan, India, the Russian Federation, and some of the CIS nations.

The president also used some ‘spin’ in attacking one of UNF’s stated goals to instate gubernatorial elections for Afghanistan’s provinces, saying that such an arrangement would be tantamount to federalism (he did not explain how), and that that was not a route that the people of Afghanistan wanted to go down again (he did not say when they had done so before.) In regard to UNF’s other goal of changing the constitution in favor of a parliamentary system in Afghanistan, the president invoked the mandate of the people (an oft-invoked genie these days) in that their representatives voted in the constitutional Loyal Jirga in favor of a strong unitary and presidential form of government.

Furthermore the president choose the occasion to admit that members of his government have met with Taliban representatives and that he has had personal audiences with them. This is most certainly in response to another point on the UNF agenda, i.e. its stated willingness to negotiate with the Taliban. With the Taliban’s cycle of spring insurgency well underway and suicide bombings taking place at unprecedented frequency and proximity to the capital, UNF’s placatory moves could be seen as a more attractive alternative to the Karzai government’s failure to negotiate with the Taliban to curb violence.

So far so good. The president has done well in choosing to confront the reality of the new front and responding to their stated goals and criticisms of the government instead of ignoring it like he has been doing for the past couple of weeks. The cynical wheeler-dealers that constitute the new front bring to mind other such disastrous mass marriages of convenience during Afghanistan’s lost decade (1990s) i.e. the Islamabad and Mecca pacts. Then too leaders and figures who were sworn enemies of each other had come together by the force of circumstances and united by their common designs on the people of Afghanistan. Now, marginalized and confronted by new realities (read the frightening episode of “National Amnesty” debate where for a while it seemed likely that the bill would not go through and they would remain prone to accountability for their deeds) some of the very same figures have come together again. Lastly, the new group is aggressively promoting itself as a multi-ethnic and broadly representative grouping. In reality, this could be vacuous posturing as the UNF is not all that representative.

While the formation of new political parties is widely recognized as one of the most urgent needs of the political system in Afghanistan, the truth is that groups like UNF simply don’t cut it. Instead of such old-guard, top-down, wheeler-dealer line-ups, genuine efforts by civil society groups in Afghanistan should be encouraged.

Update on New Front + Evolving Hazara Leadership

March 16, 2007

Here is a bit of correction and an update on the previous post about the formation of the new political front by discontents from among Afghanistan’s old pro-communist and Jihadi figures:

According to Pajhwok Afghan News reports, the front, officially called the “United National Front” does include some “warlord”-designates such as former Herat governor and current Energy minister Ismail Khan, Uzbek strongman and advisor to Karzai on security matters Rashid Dustum, and current speaker of Wulusi Jirga (lower house of Afghan parliament) Yunus Qanooni.

Looking at the updated line-up of faces, it seems that the group takes in just about everyone of significance in Afghan politics who is not already co-opted by the government of president Karzai. Two conspicuous absences from the new front are Sayyaf and Muhaqiq, both with sticky ‘warlord’ epithets, and both powerful current MPs with illustrous Jihad credentials.

What explains these absences?

In the case of Sayyaf, he is already co-opted by the Karzai government and operates in locksteps with the administration, but serves his role more usefully if he is publicly seen as an independent MP.

As for Muhaqiq, well, his political career is in dire straits. He has offered himself many times over to the altar of Karzai, but has no takers. He has shown his willingness to gladly throw his lots with anybody (even bitter former enemies like Sayyaf with a long record of proven and documented atrocities against Muhaqiq’s hazara constituency), and at times, he has sought the graces of the government after being sacked from the cabinet as Karzai’s initial Minister of Planning. Owing to a number of miscalculations (most notably joining forces with Sayyaf in the parliament) Muhaqiq’s popularity among the Hazara people has been sliding.

It is against this backdrop that his absence from the United National Front can be explained: Mustafa Kazemi, the new front’s speaker and an instrumental figure in its founding, is styling himself as the unopposed leader of the “Shi’a” of Afghanistan, a dubious group designation that may work well in Iraq, but is virtually meaningless in Afghanistan. It is clear to one and all that politics in Afghanistan will continue to be driven along ethnic lines and not religious or ideological ones for a long time to come. While Mr. Kazemi is not an ethnic Hazara, he does share the Shi’a persuation of Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic community, and he is planning to capitalize on this common denominator to represent them under a new banner.

From the look of things, and from the record of Mr. Kazemi, he should not have any illusions about the Hazara people rallying to his banner. Not because the Hazara people have better alternatives for leadership (as stated above, both Muhaqiq and Khalili have virtually lost their popular support among the majority of Hazara people), but rather, because in what seems to be an interesting and rare social phenomenon in Afghanistan, the Hazara people as a whole are sliding away from personality-based leadership and what Max Weber would term “traditional” roots of legitimacy in their political thinking. Among the urban-dwelling Hazara for a long time, but increasingly also among other Hazara living in central regions, leadership models of yesteryear are eroding in allure and politics is becoming increasingly “issue-based.”(For statistical data on how political thinking has evolved among the Hazara and the very important role played by civil society groups in shaping this new thinking, refer to the Asia Foundation’s A Survey of the Afghan People 2006.)

Old Guard Lining Up to Form New “National Front”

March 15, 2007

BBC Persian reporter Dawood Naji writes from Kabul about the formation of a new political front that brings together what would otherwise be an unlikely cohort of yesteryear’s communist party ranking members (Khalqi and Parchami) and their later Jihadi successors.

The list of founding members features a motley crew composed of known faces from both extremes of the ideological spectrum in Afghanistan: deposed defense minister and the inheritor of Shura-y Nizar Marshall Fahim, comrade Gulabzoy (who has since prefixed his name with “Sayed Mohammad”), friend Nurulhaq Ulumi, former president and head of Jamiat-e-Islami Rabbani, and the group’s speaker Mustafa Kazemi with a dubious political pedigree of his own.

“The National Front,” as the group is called, clearly comprises a powerful bloc within both houses of the Afghan parliament. It is clear that the primary raison d’etre for the newfound unity (“brotherhood” or “camaraderie” take your pick) is the simple fact that within the new political configuration in Afghanistan, people of both above stripes see themselves increasingly marginalized.

Interestingly enough, the new grouping has decidedly shut out figures with the indisputable honorific “Warlord” such as Sayyaf, Muhaqiq, Dustum, and a few others. While the latter mostly sport longer beards and tightly wound turbans, and wear their Jihadi pride on their sleeves, Mustafa Kazemi and crew prefer to go with closer trims and more urbane styles. That in itself ought to place them ahead in the game as far as the American powerbrokers are concerned.

The article in BBC Persian also points out that many of the figures in the new line-up of the “National Front” were disgruntled with the results of the constitutional Loya Jirga, and specifically with the strong presidency. To the end they fought for a parliamentary form of government and an office of the Prime Minister and were clearly unhappy when things turned otherwise. When asked whether the new front would struggle for such structural reforms as the shift to a parliamentary form of government, Mustafa Kazemi deferred to the constitution and change that would be consistent with the stipulations of the constitution. His comrades, however, strongly endorsed such structural reforms.