Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Talking to the Taliban

THE idea that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan might join the Taliban was always going to be highly unlikely, though he apparently threatened to do so early this month. It was more than likely that he was merely flipping his lid at the mounting pressures on his administration. As far as "flipping" the Taliban is concerned, while "integrating reconcilable insurgents" has been a key component of the new American strategy in Afghanistan, this merely involves persuading Taliban foot soldiers to put down their arms and cross over to the government side with promises of protection, jobs, vocational training and even money. Last month, United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates expressed the view that it was too early to begin what he called "reconciliation", as the "shift of momentum" had not been strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders they were going to lose and make them willing to make a deal.

But though the Taliban believe they are winning, they have indicated a willingness to hold "sincere and honest talks" in an interview with the Sunday Times of London. And though the Taliban ruling council remains committed to establishing syariah law and expelling foreigners, it did not lay down preconditions for negotiations. Until now, only Karzai and the United Nations seem willing to try to establish contact with the Taliban -- a development that was refuted in the interview, however -- without much support from Washington. But that may be about to change now that the Taliban appears to be willing to come to the table and US President Barack Obama has been reported to have said last month that it might be time to start talking to the Taliban.

However much Obama may say, as he did on Australian television recently, that there has been "a blunting of the momentum of the Taliban", even victories on the battlefield may not be enough when hearts and minds have not been won. And whatever it may say about being able to negotiate from a "position of strength", even the Taliban may have had to rethink its strategy after Mullah Omar's second-in-command was arrested by the Pakistani security agencies. As Obama reiterated, international forces cannot be in Afghanistan in "perpetuity", and responsibility needs to be transferred to the Afghan people. And that cannot mean just to Karzai and the "reconcilable" Talibans, but also to all the stakeholders on all sides of the country's divides. Now that the Taliban has offered to talk, it is to be hoped that it opens up the search for a negotiated settlement and a durable political accord. New Straits Times editorial

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