Talking to the Taliban


Published: June 26, 2011

The writer is professor of political science at LUMS rasul.rais@tribune.com.pk

When, how and on what terms will the Afghan war end? If we go by the political rhetoric of the warring sides, the Taliban and the United States and its Nato allies, there will be no solution until each side achieves its central objectives. The problem is that both sides in any conflict cannot achieve their objectives until they reach some middle ground by recognising that the other side has some legitimate concerns, interests and can be acknowledged as a party with whom some political business can be done.

After much thought and consternation, the US, the major party in the Afghan war, has recognised that without a peace deal with the Taliban, the end to the Afghan war is unlikely. Washington is forced to come to terms with the reality of the Afghan Taliban as much by the ferocity of the movement as by the political and economic cost of the war. It is an absurd argument that the Americans can win the war or fight it forever. It is equally absurd to suggest that the Taliban can defeat some of the best armies in the world. In one significant sense, the Taliban have won, by creating a costly stalemate that the western powers will not be able to sustain for a very long time.

It has taken 10 years for the Taliban and the US to acknowledge that they cannot defeat the other party. For men with deeper knowledge of Afghan society and history, this realisation must have come much earlier. There are many apologetic arguments in defence of the war. One of them is very typical of the militaristic mind — beat the adversary to the negotiating table. Policy analysts in western think tanks will continue to defend the announcement of US President Barack Obama to start pulling out troops this year by saying, ‘we have weakened the Taliban enough; look they are asking for a negotiated settlement’.

Misinformation and twisted analyses presented as policy studies and assessment reports are often part of the national narratives of war and peace. It is rare to find some honest analysis of the Afghan conflict. Still rare is any humanistic portrayal of the Taliban; there is only a caricatured view that dehumanises them. In art, literary works, movies and political analysis they are made out to be demons, not humans, and therefore the general perception is that it is not worth reaching out to them or trying to understand their ethnic origins.

Regrettably, from the first popular publication on the Taliban by journalists to the last one, the Taliban stand for a society that is against education, equality and human rights, especially those of women, and would like to pull down the entire edifice of the modern world. Let us pause for a moment and ask ourselves a question: How do states and societies governed by corrupt Third World elite fare on these counts?

True, the Taliban don’t represent pluralistic Islam, and they may not be genuine representatives of Afghanistan or Pakistan, but how genuine is their characterisation? Much of the truth about the Taliban and Afghanistan has been lost in the intellectual and media battlegrounds.

Will the image of the Taliban change after a political deal or when they integrate into the power structure of Afghanistan? Sure, their political brand will be kosher, as it is of those Taliban that have joined the Kabul government.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2011.

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