Should we talk to the Taliban?

Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, issued a 69-point document that includes a ban on “suicide bombings against civilians, burning down schools, or cutting off ears, lips and tongues.” (Allisa J. Rubin, NYT, Jan 21) Though this new Taliban code of behavior goes so far as to echo Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners, it has not attracted the kind of attention you’d expect. If anything, the newsworthiness of this extreme turnaround has been played down, the Taliban’s motivations questioned, and Mullah Omar’s influence placed in doubt.

In the meantime, at the London conference on Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai announced plans to expand a program that invites lower level Taliban soldiers to change sides. Matching the salaries of the so-called $10-a-day-Taliban, young men from impoverished villages who sign on as foot soldiers because they must earn a living somehow, the argument goes, will persuade. Karzai has also been urging talks with the Afghan Taliban since they will have to be included in a government that purports to represent all the Afghan people. Indeed, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Pakistan, ostensibly to persuade the army to take on the Afghan, not just the Pakistani, Taliban, acknowledged that the Afghan Taliban will have to take part in governing the new Afghanistan. Somehow the contradiction involved in making both arguments at once escaped him.

Perhaps the U.S. strategy is a dual one: tough talk from one side of the mouth and float the possibility of peace talks from the other, all while keeping the pressure on with stepped up drone attacks that kill civilians alongside the targeted militants. The problem: We are violating the rights of a sovereign nation and justifying the jihad against us. Pakistan’s youth and the popular musicians and cultural figures that attract them have been quoted as saying that the West and not the Taliban is Pakistan’s problem. So this is not a strategy that is winning hearts and minds, or stabilizing Afghanistan.

The notable news here is that there is some consensus that the success of an Afghan nation will depend on drawing together the various factions and groups to represent all the people in this fractured war-torn country. And, significantly, the Taliban seems to have chosen this moment “to recast itself as a local liberation movement, independent of Al Qaeda,” but only, the article quickly points out, to capitalize “on mounting Afghan frustrations.” (NYT) But these counter arguments miss the point. We have an opportunity to seize this given initiative and encourage the Taliban toward a gentler, more humane face, toward more mainstream governance, and hope that the sheer momentum of such rehabilitation sticks.

Of course there are reasons to doubt and question Mullah Omar’s intentions. Given what we know of the Taliban, even before 9-11, we have reason to fear a Taliban takeover, in which Afghans are forced to live as a pre-modern people. Afghan women especially have much to fear. On the other hand, the Afghan people have been making their desire for security known. They don’t care whether they’re governed by Karzai or the Taliban. What they want is an end to corruption. What they want are schools and hospitals. And jobs.

We also know what the Taliban want. When Obama decided that pulling out of Afghanistan was not a choice, Mullah Omar released a statement that refuted the administration’s premise that it has no choice, and restated the Taliban message that should by now be loud and clear: They don’t want Western occupation.

So instead of going after Mullah Omar himself, as the CIA is doing, with increased drone attacks in Quetta where he is said to be living, this is the moment to re-evaluate his statements and actions, his conditions for talks, the fulfillment of at least one of which is already in the pipeline: the UN is said to be taking him off its most wanted list. In fact, Omar’s vilification in the US rests largely on the fact that he refused to turn over bin Laden when the Bush administration issued its ultimatum, a choice it surely knew no Muslim, not even our allies in Saudi Arabia, could or would make. A cleric from a poor village said to have been raised in a Sufic dervish order and a fighter in the war against the Soviets, Omar is revered by both Afghans and Pakistanis. Going after him rather than respond to his offers, which indicate a willingness to share power with the Karzai government, reveals a tin ear and serves to cast doubt on our claim that we have no interest in long-term occupation of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The argument by experts that the war in Afghanistan has always been a political not a religious one should guide our understanding of Mullah Omar’s actions, based largely in exigency. To build a larger army, he invited tribal leaders, former warlords, and various factions including Al-Qaeda, to fight alongside his old mujahideen comrades. Their brutal idea of justice combined a mix of biblical style eye for an eye, ancient-style revenge, and traditional, patriarchal misogyny, all repulsive. But consider our own suspension of constitutional liberties in the face of war, which ended with illegal torture, spying on our own citizens, secret detention cells, silencing of whistleblowers, and more.

The most convincing argument for talks with Mullah Omar might be that he is the best man we have now or are likely to have in the near and far future. A spiritual man with some moral compass and with sway over his people, a leader with experience in the devastations of war and who seems to be moving to bring an end to it, Mullah Omar might be the only Taliban partner a representative Afghan government has. Killing him can only extend the war in Afghanistan and our engagement in it.

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