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Afghanistan's way forward must include the Taliban

Ordinary Afghans are entwined in the movement, choosing daily whether to join the fighters or join the move toward democracy. The Obama administration is right to open the door to dialogue.

December 09, 2009|By Azeem Ibrahim

President Obama, in spelling out the new U.S. strategy on Afghanistan this month, said that the United States will countenance dialogue with some elements of the Taliban: "We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens."

But "opening the door" should in practice mean allowing moderate elements of the Taliban to share power in a democratic Afghan system.

This is not as startling as it might seem, and it is vital to understand why it is so important. First, many Taliban fighters are simply peripheral Taliban militants. They joined the Taliban as a pragmatic opportunity for advancement in a country where most power comes from conservative Islam or guns. They typically fight close to the village where they live and grew up, and so lack the mobility of a true militia. Only a minority are "core" Taliban, such as Mullah Mohammed Omar and the conservative junta that took power in Afghanistan in 1996.

It is also important to know that most Taliban, unlike Al Qaeda, are indigenous Afghans and are not likely to leave the country. In this respect (and only in this respect), trying to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban by military means would be like a foreign country trying to rid the U.S. of Ku Klux Klan supporters by military means. Reporter Jason Burke of the Observer of London has described how, when he asks village locals who members of the Taliban are, a common response is bemused surprise and the answer "men from my village."

So, while it is clear that success in Afghanistan will depend on the support -- active or passive -- of ordinary Afghans, the same is true of the Afghan Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans who, daily, choose to get involved in the Taliban insurgency, or in NATO-supported projects such as the new local guardian force operating in Wardak province, the fledgling national army or local or national democracy.

By including this reality in his strategic assessment to Obama, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged that looking at the war in simplistic Manichaean terms -- save as many good guys as possible while taking out as many bad guys as possible -- was a mistake. The "good guys" and the "bad guys" are often the same people. Rather, the U.S. and NATO must maximize Afghans' incentive to participate in civil society and minimize their incentive to fight.

There is little the alliance can do to minimize the incentive to fight, especially for those Afghans motivated by the mere presence in their country of Western, non-Muslim forces or by skewed interpretations of a rural, conservative brand of Islam. But there are things it can do to maximize the incentive to participate.

The fact that many of the Taliban are both peripheral and indigenous means that if Afghanistan is to ultimately build a participative political process, moderate members of the Taliban will have to be included.

The pros of this approach outbalance the cons.

Critics will say that it will bring some unpalatable results. The Taliban's often brutal form of conservative justice shocks the liberal sensibilities of the Western nations paying for the war. Bringing these people into the political process will mean conceding that Western troops are not the right means to change some customs and attitudes -- for example, when older men wed very young girls.

But we already are getting such unpalatable results. President Hamid Karzai has made these kinds of concessions to bolster his legitimacy. Witness the law passed before the Afghan election this summer allowing Shiite men to deny their wives sustenance if they do not satisfy their husbands, and that requiring women to get permission from their husbands to work. This law helped to shore up his power but did not substantially neutralize the Taliban's desire to fight by bringing it into the political process.

But on the plus side, bringing the Taliban into the political process will mean setting up a thorough participative process. One of the many problems with the presidential election was that traditional power brokers such as warlords had such a central role in ensuring support for the candidates. For example, the government paid insurgent leaders not to attack voters or polling stations, according to the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh.

Nobody expected an advanced democratic process. But we can reasonably expect that next time, votes will be a better, truer representation of the people's wishes and not just "bought." This will require negotiating with some of the people who have been fighting the NATO alliance, so that the differences over how Afghanistan is governed can be expressed in debate rather than merely fought over.

It will not be easy, but participation is the first step toward a self-sustaining process. And that is essential to boosting the legitimacy of the Afghan government and to get the nation to the point at which the alliance can begin bringing its soldiers home.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a World Fellow at Yale University and chairman of a financial corporation.

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