Brig.-Gen. Guy Laroche, currently Canada's top military commander in Afghanistan, puts it simply:[i] "I don't talk to the Taliban." In the same Canadian Press report, Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier is just as categorical: "Canada does not negotiate with terrorists, for any reason."
For both comments, the immediate issue was the negotiated release of South Koreans held captive by the Taliban, but in both cases the comments were given broader context.
Gen. Laroche acknowledged that it will take more than military force to bring peace and order to Afghanistan, but he is right about not negotiating with the Taliban in the sense that he certainly has no mandate to do so. There may be tactical situations involving Canadian Forces in which negotiations would protect particular people in particular circumstances and his blanket dismissal of such an option does not generate confidence, but he is right in a strategic sense. Negotiations with the Taliban with a view to a more effective pursuit of peace and order are not up to foreign military commanders - that is the task of Afghans and the international community represented through the United Nations presence there.
And that is where Foreign Minister Bernier is certainly wrong.
Mr. Bernier is simply mistaken when he says that Canada never negotiates with terrorists. Canada has had officials present at current negotiations with the Lord's Resistance Army to get it to end its campaign of unspeakable terror in Northern Uganda. Canada has similarly been represented at peace talks to end the war, and the extreme war crimes, in Darfur - sharing a table with the perpetrators of terror.
Canada, the United Nations, and virtually all governments enmeshed in protracted conflicts negotiate with individuals and groups guilty of heinous crimes. Minister Bernier is new to his post, but there are many seasoned negotiators in his department who are in a position to help him adjust, expand, and nuance his views.
As has been frequently argued in this space, a key measure of Canada's effectiveness in Afghanistan will be the extent to which this country has used its presence there to encourage negotiations toward a new political consensus and a new governance structure that is understood by all Afghans to reflect and represent their best interests.
[i] Canadian Press, ""General vows: ‚ÄòI don't talk to the Taliban'," The Record, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontarion, August 31, 2007.