Academics, experts appeal to Obama to back Taliban talks

December 11, 2010

arghandabA group of academics, journalists and NGO workers have published an open letter to President Barack Obama appealing to him to support direct negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

The letter argues that the situation on the ground on Afghanistan is much worse than a year ago. “With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution,” it says.

“Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think — a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more — are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system.”

“The current contacts between the Karzai government and the Taliban are not enough. The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account. In addition, from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year.”

“This is why we ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. A ceasefire and the return of the insurgency leadership in Afghanistan could be part of a de-escalation process leading to a coalition government. ”

The United States, which is due to release a review of strategy in Afghanistan next week, has so far shown little inclination to engage in serious negotiations with the Taliban leadership, although it has accepted that ultimately there will have to a political solution to a war that cannot be won militarily.  There is also little sign it is about to change its stance of ramping up military operations — Defense Secretary Robert Gates just returned from a trip to Afghanistan where he said the U.S. strategy was working.

The letter, however, is still worth reading and particular scrolling through the list of names of those who signed up to it.  If nothing else, it serves as a useful marker from regional experts that they believe the Taliban are willing to negotiate.

Among the signatories are Antonio Giustozzi, author of Decoding the New Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos,  Gilles Dorronsoro,  at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,  Kandahar-based writers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn who co-edited the memoirs of former Taliban ambassador  to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, along with many others.

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