| ||Talking peace with the Taliban|
By Olivia Ward
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In the shifting sands of Afghanistan, it can be hard to see the lay of the political land
Images of war dominate news of Afghanistan: another soldier's death, the fear-filled faces of Taliban hostages.
But what's hidden from the cameras is the growing effort to find peace with the extremists whose black turbans symbolize unending warfare, but whom Western countries increasingly hope are the key to putting the battered country on the road to reconciliation.
The recent release of 19 kidnapped South Korean missionary aid workers came after a landmark deal between Seoul and the Taliban. The negotiations were appalling to some observers but did renew expectations that the militants were ready to do business.
"We do not negotiate with terrorists for any reason," said Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier, adding that "such negotiations, even if unsuccessful, only lead to further acts of terrorism."
His words were underscored by a Taliban vow to kidnap and kill more foreigners from countries with troops in Afghanistan. And, skeptics asked, even if the militants were willing to make a peace deal, are they united enough, and sincere enough, to make it stick?
But the war has so far cost the lives of 70 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat. As the list lengthens, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper seeks consensus on our future involvement in Afghanistan, a growing number of Canadians are connecting the dots between the continuing military conflict and the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
The urgency increases as NATO countries ponder cutting their troop contributions or holding back on making new ones.
Military analysts say the peak ratio of international soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan is one per 13 kilometres of territory, compared with Iraq's one for three kilometres.
A NATO meeting this weekend in Victoria is aimed at finding a way of turning around the ever-bloodier conflict. But it is not expected to include any significant increases in boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
"The whole mission in Afghanistan is under-resourced," notes Col. Mike Capstick, who recently retired as commander of Canada's Strategic Advisory Team in Afghanistan.
"There are not enough NATO troops to be everywhere all the time. The national Afghan forces aren't ready yet to fill the gap. And everybody knows that the interior (police) ministry is the most corrupt in the country."
Some of Harper's opponents have accused him of losing the peace in Afghanistan by focusing on the war. NDP Leader Jack Layton has urged bringing the Taliban into the political process.
Polls show a majority of Canadians think he's right, and that negotiating is more realistic than it is reckless.
Even with a "surge" of troops into Afghanistan, history shows that military muscle alone is unlikely to bring long-term peace.
"Since World War II, is there one successful counter-insurgency?" asks Thomas Johnson, a professor of national security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a U.S. adviser in Afghanistan. "The answer is none. This war will never be won militarily. I support the notion of negotiation, to the extent that we can negotiate."
But there's the rub.
While strategists regret the Western decision to expel and exclude the Taliban after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has spent five years talking to the extremists in an effort to bring the militants back into the political tent.
Under a 2002 amnesty program – bitterly criticized by Taliban victims – Karzai has persuaded hundreds to lay down their arms. Some of them were elected to the Afghan parliament and senate and one became governor of Uruzgan province. Yet in the past five years, the insurgency has escalated dramatically. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and other Islamist forces have made a comeback, many streaming over the porous border from Pakistan on motorbikes or state-of-the art SUVs.
With a war-chest reportedly topped up by the vast Afghan drug trade, Pakistani supporters and Al Qaeda's international fundraisers – as well as by sympathizers in Arab states – the Afghan insurgency is not feeling a financial pinch from the international community's anti-terrorist financial laws.
NATO forces say some weapons have also been supplied by Iran and China.
Meanwhile, deals struck between the Western coalition and local Taliban agents to end violence in exchange for a limited voice in local affairs have collapsed, and fighting resumed in troubled areas including Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
Some of Pakistan's efforts to make deals with tribal leaders along its Taliban-populated borders have also failed. But there are new reports of quiet negotiations with the Taliban. And those who know the militants say the West could take advantage of splits in their ranks to forge new deals, isolate the most deadly elements and create areas of security that would win Afghan hearts and minds long enough to entrench peace.
"There is a timeline for secret three-party talks to establish teega (a Pashto word for a peace deal) between the Western coalition forces in Afghanistan, with Pakistan, the Afghan government and the anti-coalition insurgents of Afghanistan," wrote Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online.
Shahzad, who was once detained by the Taliban while reporting on their organization, says that although "the Taliban are united under a single command of Mullah Omar, the Afghan insurgency is not simple."
And, he warns that the insurgency is far broader now than the Taliban alone. Although the militants use the same brand name, their numbers include "former warlords belonging to the late (Jalalabad-based) Moulvi Younus Khalis group of hezb-e-Islami, Gulbadin (Hekmatyar's) Hizb-e-Islami and (Gardez-based) Saifullah Masoor's group are all part of the insurgency."
After Osama bin Laden, the West's next "great Satan" is Taliban leader Mullah Omar – someone with whom the U.S. and others would not do business. But Shahzad says Omar doesn't "meddle" in local operations, giving the commanders leeway to make their own deals.
Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, said to be in charge of suicide bombing operations in Afghanistan, is a convert to the group who has been quietly approached to break away and lead a moderate movement.
He has so far resisted, but Shahzad judges him to be "a little disappointed with the Taliban command" after failing to receive the recognition he believes he deserves. That could be an opening for the coalition countries to make new overtures.
Shahzad also sees a "widening gap" between the homegrown Taliban and ultra-extreme Al Qaeda fighters who embrace Takfirism – the belief that "bad Muslims" are as much of an enemy as non-Muslims.
Loyal to Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, at least 40,000 foreign fighters poured into Pakistan's lawless North and South Waziristan, near the Afghan border. There, they waged global jihad and declared the Waziristans to be Islamic states.
But Pakistan made a deal reportedly offering local tribal leaders money and weapons to expel the foreigners. Violent fighting resulted and many of Al Qaeda's Arab and Central Asian recruits left for Iraq.
Are local Taliban leaders now ready to consider a truce? In the shifting sands of Afghanistan, it is often difficult to tell where the political landscape lies.
Canadian Chris Alexander, the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, told The New York Times that "the Taliban are vulnerable in many ways" after Pakistan's intervention and the loss of senior leaders.
He and others say some progress has been made.
"Within the Taliban movement, there is a lot of criticism for associating with bin Laden," says Tarique Niazi, an environmental sociologist at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire whose family hails from the Afghan-Pakistani borderland.
Niazi says a U.S.-brokered recent meeting of 50 tribal leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan was a sign of progress, as the leaders called for talks with the Taliban.
He believes it "could serve as a key mechanism" for resolving conflicts across southwest Asia. And he points out that Pashtuns, who are in the majority in Afghanistan, have felt disenfranchised by Karzai's government, which has put members of the mainly Tajik Northern Alliance in dominant positions.
That has left the way open for the largely Pashtun Taliban to play the nationalist card.
Says Niazi: "It isn't mobilizing in the name of religion, but in the name of Pashtuns, who have 300 years of history fighting the Soviets, the British Raj, and now the Americans and Canadians."
If the West wants peace, it might have to change its ideas of what success in Afghanistan looks like, Niazi says. It might have to abandon its blueprint for democracy in the face of a culture based on a "powerful collective ethic" rather than individual rights.
The deep conservatism of the Taliban springs from the same matrix.
In the near term, says Niazi, "history, culture and social structure should be the guideposts .... The country should have representatives from all the groups – Tajiks, Hazaras and Pashtuns. They should include the Taliban as one of the participants, but they must understand they're not the only one."
On the positive side, security is the main goal of most Afghans
"All the stakeholders need to sit down and set some minimum achievable goals," says Niazi. "Those who won't give up violence will be separated."