Sunday, December 03, 2006

Engaging the Taliban

US folly in Afghanistan

Oct.9 2006
WHERE the road ends the Taliban control begins. That is perhaps the best way to summarise the situation in Afghanistan five years after US-led coalition forces invaded the country to topple the hardline regime in Kabul. Hopes of stability and security have not been realised in the country, which has a centuries-old record of being too tough for any foreign invader to control. In modern history, the British colonial power tried its hand and failed and then the mighty Soviet Union had to retreat after nearly a decade of military occupation of Afghanistan. Obvious, the US and its allies failed to learn from history.
The biggest mistake the US-led coalition made in Afghanistan was to take the Afghan people for granted and believe that they would be happy to find an end to the Taliban rule, which was based on hardline interpretations of Islamic teachings and practices. Indeed, a majority of Afghans suffered from abject poverty and could not care less who ruled them as long as their daily needs were met. However, they are also proud people and they preferred to have one from among them to rule them. As such, it would not be a very accurate assertion that the Afghan people wanted to get rid of the Taliban.
Assessing the Afghan minidset on the basis of the Western experience with the Afghan refugees living in Pakistan was yet another mistake. For those refugees, returning home was a dream in itself, and they should never have been taken as a barometer to chart the future course of the country.
The gravest of all mistakes was the shortcoming in ensuring that the Afghans felt that they stood to lose something if they themselves turned party to destabilising the post-war country. The international community did understand this reality, and hence the flood of pledges that were made for the country. However, it was a sad story when it came to actual delivery on the pledges.
Today, studies have found that less than 10 per cent of the Afghan population have access to electricity and less than 15 per cent access to potable water. Unemployment is high among the youth. It should not have been the case had the donors made good their pledges and also helped ensure that the funds were used for the right projects.
In simple terms, whatever money was available was too less to make a real difference to the daily life of the people of Afghanistan and for them to feel they have entered a new era.
Senior foreign military commanders who have seen the realities on the ground in the country have raised the same points. Now they add that the present strength of the coalition forces is insufficient to deal effectively with the Taliban, who are indeed regrouping and staging a comeback in the countryside with many young men from the frustrated rural population joining them.
The American declaration that democracy has progressed in Afghanistan is undermined by the fact that the government's control is limited to Kabul and even that is now challenged by the increasing number of insurgent attacks in the capital. The Taliban were even able mount an attack at the US embassy a few weeks ago.
What the US and its allies face in Afghanistan today is an array of problems which include the inability to form a police force, and uncontrollable forces owing loyalty to tribe-based warlords and others who could afford to pay them better than the Afghan army and mounting cases of violations of human rights.
The West now complains that there has been a significant growth of opium poppy production since the ouster of the Taliban.
It is not too late for salvaging the situation. The powers that control Afghanistan should stop in their tracks and consider including the Taliban in the political system. It might indeed be a bitter pill for the US and its allies to swallow, but there is no escape from the reality that the Taliban are as Afghan as any other. Opening dialogue with the Taliban could be the first step in redirecting the course of events in the country towards better shores. The task is not at all easy, but it is the only sure way for turning the situation in Afghanistan.