Should the Afghans be talking to the Taliban?

September 16, 2008

Afghan President Hamid Karzai used a Sept 11 address last year to appeal to the Taliban to come for talks and end bloodshed in the war-torn nation.

The Taliban responded with even more attacks, turning 2008 into the bloodiest year yet since the U.S. led invasion seven years ago, and understandably Karzai who survived an assassination attempt this year has gone quiet on the talks offer.

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But should Karzai, and especially his western-backers, be completely shutting the door on them, or should they be playing the field given that there does seem to be some level of sympathy for them among the local population?

I was in Kabul during the last two weeks and was struck by some Afghans talking about the positives during the Taliban years even as they were clearly ill-at-ease with the more brutal face of the regime.

Mohammad Nasim, a gardner at Kabul’s soccer stadium where the Taliban staged public executions, told me during an interview there were no bribes to be paid, and no running around government offices endlessly under the Taliban.

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Work got done in time, he stressed, contrasting his employer’s current struggle to get money from the government for rebuilding the socccer field still haunted by the shootings and hangings.

At the same time, Nasim recalled with obvious pain how three of his relatives were either shot dead or hanged  by the Taliban, near the goalpost where we stood talking to him one quiet afternoon last week. They were innocent like many others put to death by the Taliban on flimsy charges, he said.

But the Taliban also punished thieves and criminals, chopping off arms and legs and it was not long before crime fell.

Much of that is back now along with a full-blown insurgency in which more people have been killed this year than any since the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001.

Seven years on, life was no better, Afghans told a Reuters reporter in Spin Boldak , a town in the southern province of Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, with one saying he had donated money to the Taliban fighters during the holy month of Ramadan.

Surging violence, including a spike in civilian casualties, has reignited Afghans’ distaste for foreign forces on their soil of which they have had more than their share throughout history.

And then disillusionment with Karzai for failing to deliver on development, high prices and poverty seem to have added to the frustration that many Afghans feel.

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As previously highlighted on this blog, while the Taliban are broadly unpopular in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, they do have some claim on sentiments of sub-nationalism among the Pushtun ethnic group. They have managed to become political movements, writes Juan Cole in Informed Comment

It is interesting that even in Pakistan relatively few speak out forcefully against civilian casualties caused by Taliban suicide bombings or their other violent acts such as targeting of girls schools, as journalist Mustafa Qadri says in this report.

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