Getting on with "talking to the Taliban"

It was a particularly arresting headline that warranted the further search: "Taliban, US in new round of peace talks."

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief of the Asia Times Online, has been writing a series of articles on continuing efforts to negotiate deals which he says "aim to stop violence in selected areas and give the Taliban limited control of government pending the conclusion of a broader peace deal for the country and the Taliban's inclusion in some form of national administration."[i] What he describes is really talks about talks, and he links the interest in negotiating to interest in the fabled oil pipeline to connect the oil fields of Turkmenistan and the other northern "stans" to south Asia and beyond, but there is no doubt that the undeniable futility of the fighting is increasingly turning heads to the possibility of alternatives.

The negotiation track has been given a significant boost by the recent four-day joint (Afghanistan and Pakistan) "peace Jirga,"[ii] by all accounts an extraordinary gathering that has inspired both hope and considerable skepticism.

The hope owes to what some consider the broad base of the Jirga[iii] - some 700 delegates that included representatives of civil society, business, tribal communities, religious communities, Parliaments, and Governments - and the agreement to pursue a peace and reconciliation agenda within the Pashtun communities of both countries aimed at curbing violence and bringing the communities into credible participation in provincial and national governments.

The skepticism owes to what others regard as the narrow base of the Jirga - the President of Pakistan was key in the selection of Pakistan participants and the Taliban were excluded - and to the insistence that it mandates talks only with those who renounce violence and terrorism[iv] (a reflection of Washington's reluctance to support an aggressive reconciliation program).[v]

The Jirga did produce two significant results. It authorized a smaller and ongoing Jirga of 50 members (25 from each country) with a mandate to "expedite the ongoing process of dialogue for peace and reconciliation,"[vi] and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan acknowledged at the closing session that indeed the Afghan insurgency did receive support within Pakistan (but denying it was with official connivance).[vii]

Although media shorthand frames the issue as "negotiating with the Taliban," the point is not to seek accommodation with the Taliban as an ideological movement, but to engage the people of the chronically destabilized parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that means talking to the representatives of the Pashtun community on both sides of the border. Tarique Niazi of the University of Wisconsin argues that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who initially proposed the Jirga and who is himself a Pashtun, regards tribal leaders as the "foundation of Pashtun culture and believes in their primacy over all other cultural and political institutions to resolve internecine conflicts" and also believes "that the jirga is the most effective tool in Pashtun society for conflict resolution."[viii] Niazi makes a clear and compelling case for focusing talks within the Pashtun community rather than on the Taliban as an organization:

"Although Pashtuns reject al-Qaeda and its terrorism, as the Kabul Jirga resoundingly demonstrated, they are resentful of their loss of power in Kabul, which they held for 200 years, to an ethnic minority-dominated and U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The Taliban, who are predominantly Pashtuns, are drawing on this sense of exclusion among their majority community to sustain their struggle. An ethnic balance to the current distribution of power, therefore, will help drain the Afghan resistance of energy and serve as well the long-term security interests of the Northern Alliance."[ix]

The calls for such negotiations are not new, of course. President Karzai had earlier asked a group of former Taliban to engage dissidents.[x]The Afghan Senate has called on the government in Kabul to open direct talks with native Taliban insurgents, and for NATO-led military operations against them to stop.[xi] Last fall a group of village elders told a UN Security Council delegation that the international community should make peace with the Taliban and turn from fighting the Taliban to a focus on reconstruction. They said stability would be advanced by increased financial aid and rebuilding the country's infrastructure.[xii] A former Afghan (Taliban) Minister, who now teaches at a university in New Zealand, writing in the International Herald Tribune, also argued last year that the international forces in Afghanistan have reached the limit of their contribution and that a new plan is called for, including renewed focus on development, greater focus on training Afghan army and police, a Muslim peacekeeping force, and in particular a new intra-Afghan dialogue.[xiii]

As has been noted here before, negotiating with one's adversary is the rule, not the exception, in the successful termination of armed conflict and Canada should take advantage of the upsurge in the interest in talks and devote substantial diplomatic and material resources to supporting and promoting such negotiations. In the NDP's dissenting opinion to the report of the House of Commons Defence Committee on Afghanistan, MP Dawn Black suggests that the success of the diplomatic element of Canada's mission in Afghanistan

"should be judged by its capacity to support, facilitate and catalyze efforts towards the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan. Specifically, the diplomatic mission should be measured by progress in building international momentum for comprehensive peace negotiations at three levels: within Afghanistan; with international players; and in the regional context."[xiv]

That is anything but a partisan appeal. Indeed, inasmuch as the safety and well-being of Afghans depends the emergence of a new political order, it ought to be the core objective of Canada's presence in Afghanistan.

[i] Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban, US in new round of peace talks," Asia Times, August 21, 2007 (

[ii] A tribal council or assembly.

[iii] Tarique Niazi of the University of Wisconsin described it as "that grandest gathering of Pashtun leaders since the Durand Line was drawn in 1893 to divide Pashtun territories between Afghanistan and the British
Raj." ["Talk to the Taliban," August 16, 2007, Foreign Policy in Focus (]

[iv] "Taliban leaders denounced the jirga, and refused to fulfill preconditions that would enable their attendance, namely a public renunciation of violence and recognition of the Afghan constitution's validity." [ Camelia Entekhabi-Fard and Richard Weitz , "Probing for ways to engage the Taliban,", August 16, 2007 (]

[v] Shahzed reports on talks by Afghan representatives with Taliban leaders in both Afghanistan and Quetta, Pakistan seeking Taliban for ongoing talks, and in the meantime he notes "it remains for Washington to commit fully to a permanent policy for a political settlement." ["Talks with the Taliban gain ground," August 24, 2007, Asia Times (]

[vi] The text of the Afghan-Pak Joint Peace Jirga Declaration" is available from the August 13, 2007 edition of the Daily Times of Pakistan (

[vii] Taimor Shah and Carlotta Call, "Afghan Rebels Find Aid in Pakistan, Musharraf Admits," New York Times, August 13, 2007 (

[viii] Tarique Niazi, "Talk to the Taliban," August 16, 2007, Foreign Policy in Focus (

[ix] Tarique Niazi, "Talk to the Taliban," August 16, 2007, Foreign Policy in Focus (

[x] Terry Friel, "Only peace talks can save Afghanistan - former rebel," Reuters, April 12, 2007

[xi] Afghan Senate urges Taleban talks, BBC News, May 9, 2007.

[xii] "Make peace with the Taliban, village elders tell UN," CBC News, November 14, 2006.

[xiii] Najibullah Lafraie, "The Way Out of Afghanistan Is to Get Out," International Herald Tribune, September 6, 2006.,1518,435388,00.html

[xiv] Dawn Black, Dissenting opinion of the New Democratic Party to the Standing Committee on National Defence, Canadian Forces in Afghanistan: Report of the Standing Committee on National Defence, June 2007, 39 th Parliament, 1st Session.

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