Afghanistan (again)

“An enemy is a rare thing.” — The 14th Dalai Lama

Photo: Steve Evans

There have been enough indictments of Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan conflict already, but I do have one small suggestion which I haven’t heard anyone else make.

Why not negotiate directly with the Taliban?

The only legitimate interest that America has in Afghanistan is to stop Americans from being killed, as happened on September 11, 2001.  I think the Taliban could accommodate us on this issue.

The September 11 attacks came from Al-Qaeda, not from the Taliban; our grievance against them was that the Taliban regime sheltered Osama Bin Laden.  In fact, technically, it’s not clear that they did shelter Bin Laden: at one point they offered to send Bin Laden to a third country for trial without having proof of his guilt.

In recent years the Taliban has distanced itself further from Al-Qaeda. In his analysis of the reaction to Obama’s speech, Juan Cole explained that “they [the Taliban] also pledged that their organization has no international dimensions and they do not seek to commit terrorism in the West. The Taliban are pulling away from the wounded al-Qaeda” (italics added), which probably only has a few hundred fighters.

We should seek from the Taliban a pledge that they not shelter Al-Qaeda. (I’d also ask for a pledge not to blow up any Buddhist statues, but that one’s negotiable.) In return, we’d let them duke it out with the unbelievably corrupt Karzai regime, or, if they’d prefer, we could help broker some kind of peace agreement.

It’s certainly justified to complain about the Taliban: they oppress women, they are vandals, and they generally let the whole country go to hell while they had power.  What I object to is the obviously hypocritical manner in which this argument is used.

When the Soviets were in Afghanistan, we actually backed the Taliban-to-be and talked about how wicked and mean the Soviets were, as if this justified the excesses of the “freedom fighters.”  The Soviets complained at time, with some justification, about how reactionary these “freedom fighters” really were.  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, though, suddenly it is the Taliban who are wicked and mean.

If the justification for violence in Afghanistan is the violence of one’s opponent, I’d say the Taliban have a better case for armed struggle than we do.  The terrorists killed a few thousand people on September 11; but where the U. S. goes, as in Iraq and Vietnam, it kills by the hundreds of thousands, without remorse, apology, or accountability. If we brought the mass murderers in our own country to justice, I might have a bit more sympathy for this argument.  If we’re not willing to do that, we might at least want to stop pointing fingers and start thinking about practical ways to accommodate our interests.

I do not see a real enemy in Afghanistan.  The average life expectancy is 43 years and the average income is $426. Their only readily marketable resource is the opium poppy, which the Taliban (to their credit) wanted to eradicate.  Everyone keeps repeating history, adding a slightly different wrinkle and hoping that this time it will turn out differently.

In a few years, we’ll probably look at our balance sheets and suddenly realize that, like the Soviets, we simply can’t afford this nonsense.  Then we’ll beat a hasty retreat anyway.  I’d say, let’s negotiate with the Taliban while we still have a hand to play.

(Slightly revised December 11)

UPDATE February 6, 2010: Joe Conason asks, “Does the Taliban want to talk peace with the U. S.?” “A team of ex-Taliban officials is quietly promoting negotiations — and say their old comrades would dump al- Qaida.”  I usually don’t do this well in foreseeing political trends — you heard it first here.

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