Schools, hospitals, jobs, security and decent housing…. These are just some of the few things that Afghanistan is still unable to offer to even a fraction of its population. And this is despite the fact that almost $100 billion is supposed to have been pumped into its economy by more than 60 countries, known as “the donors group”, over the past 10 years.
We say “supposed to have been” because there is little evidence of the impact that the aid in question has had on the ground in the country.
Anyway, Afghanistan may lack many things but the one thing it has not lacked is international conferences to discuss how to help it emerge from 30 years of war and destruction. The nth such conference has just ended in Kabul, with foreign ministers and other high officials from 66 countries present.
The fact that the conference was held despite suicide bombings and rocket attacks is in itself good news. But that’s where the good news stops. The conference was dominated by the talk, mostly in the corridors of power, of opening a dialogue with the Taliban.
Talk to the Taliban has become a mantra for all those who have run out of ideas about what to do to help Afghanistan. And that includes President Hamid Karzai, the Obama administration in Washington, and the brand new British coalition government.
That President Karzai should talk of talking to the Taliban is no surprise.
Before the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington he was in close contact with the Taliban, acting as one of their antennae in the United States. In one of those ironies that adds spice to history, Karzai was chosen to become the Taliban’s ambassador to Washington just weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Of course neither he who was living in Washington at the time nor the Taliban in Afghanistan knew what was afoot.
That the Obama administration should talk of wooing the Taliban is no surprise either.
Obama is the product of outdated leftist politics that regarded the United States as an imperialist power and its intervention in other countries as unjustified and unjustifiable. Although forced to make some warlike noises to calm his public, Obama dreams of an American strategic retreat. (Whether he would have the time to realise this dream is another matter.)
The new British government’s talk of talking to the Taliban is equally natural.
This government has turned the idea of reducing the budget deficit into the core of an ersatz political religion. Keeping British troops in Afghanistan costs money, not to mention lives. So, if cut-and-run could help cut the budget deficit, so be it!
The new chief of the British army has even claimed that all wars against an insurgency end with talks with the insurgents. What he has not mentioned is that all such talks took place after the insurgents had been roundly and convincingly defeated. The latest example of this came in Iraq when the American commander General David Petraeus opened a dialogue with the insurgents after they had been defeated and helped secure them a share in the Iraqi government.
However, the main argument used for talking to the Taliban is the claim that a majority of Afghans want the NATO troops out.
A poll just published by ICOS, a respectable think-tank specialising in Afghan affairs, offers a different picture. While a majority of Afghans believe that NATO forces are there for their own interests, they also do not want the same forces to leave precipitously.
The ICOS reports says: “The research revealed some successes – a slim majority (55%) of Afghans interviewed believe that NATO and the Afghan government are winning the war, demonstrating that the battle for perceptions is still open. 40% of Afghan respondents stated that democracy was important to them, and 72% would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban. There is also progress in the interviewees’ opinion on women’s rights, with 57% of interviewees supporting girls’ education. ”
According to the same research, 80 per cent of Afghans believe that Al Qaeda would return under Taliban control. A majority of those interviewed believe more than one third of Afghans support the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Even if those figures were correct it would still show that not even all Pashtuns, who account for 38 per cent of the total population, support the Taliban – Al Qaeda axis of terror.
All such figures, however, are neither here nor there. While public support for any war is essential it would be foolish, if not suicidal, to draw up strategy on the basis of opinion polls.
The problem with the war in Afghanistan may be a loss of nerve on the part of the NATO powers rather than any military success by the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban most recently resorting to suicide attacks against soft civilian targets, killing innocent Afghans, is a clear sign of their desperation. Unable to attack NATO forces or win control of any parcel of territory, they have decided to kill at random in order to stay in the news.
Today, Taliban control is exercised over just three of the 300 or so precincts in Afghanistan, accounting for less than half of one per cent of the Afghan population. There is also some clandestine presence of Taliban and their local allies in four out of the country’s 30 provinces. With the exception of the city of Kunduz, which has a Pushtun majority, the whole of northern Afghanistan is free of the Taliban presence, as is the Badakhshan valley and all of the western provinces plus Nuristan. Kabul itself never warmed to the Taliban in the best of days, if such days ever existed. Today, it is highly unlikely that any significant segment of the Kabul population would want to return to the bad days of Taliban rule.
The principle base of support for the Taliban is in Pakistan’s Pashtun province, plus a band of Baluch area along the border with Afghanistan. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the nominal leader of the Taliban, and his principal aides reside in Quetta, capital of the Pakistani Baluchistan. This is why they call their band The Quetta Council.
Deprived of their lifeline to Pakistan, Mullah Omar and his cohorts would be reduced to a troublesome but insignificant band of bandits of the kind that Afghanistan has seen many of. Cutting that lifeline is a military objective that cannot be achieved through with any of the numerous groups labelling themselves Taliban.
Like other insurgencies, the one in Afghanistan must, and in the end will, end with the defeat of the insurgents. And once that objective has been achieved we would be among the first to urge talking to Taliban.