What a difference a few years can make. Yesterday, they were called terrorists. Today, the Taliban are a force the Americans are ready to recognise in public.
It was only in 2005 that the top Canadian soldier, General Rick Hillier, called the Taliban ‘detestable murderers and scumbags’. President George W. Bush called them evil doers. But that’s all in the past. The Taliban are back in vogue. Even the Americans have admitted that they would now do in public what they have been doing in private: talking with the Taliban.
What started three years ago in secret in a German village near Munich has matured enough to be shared with the rest of the world. The stage is set in Doha, Qatar, for yet another round of talks between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban. Those knowledgeable of Afghanistan’s past and present had advocated this dialogue for years not because the Taliban were the ideal interlocutors, but because they had the support of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pushtuns. These talks would have happened years ago if it were not for the ignorant intellectual elites, macho generals, and political ideologues who led the West to believe that Afghans could be defeated in Afghanistan.
Canada, a member of Nato, is one such country where the electorate was misled by its political, military, and intellectual leadership about what was transpiring in Afghanistan. With one voice these elites told Canadians that the war in Afghanistan was against the evil and that we (read Nato) were winning. Billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money was poured into the Afghan war that caused the deaths of thousands of Nato troops and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, while displacing several millions internally and externally.
In July 2005, I was visiting Peshawar, Pakistan, on a research assignment at the Engineering University when I read about the now infamous quote from Canada’s former Chief of Staff, General Rick Hillier, in which he called the Taliban scumbags. The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, jumped with excitement over the ‘warlike words’ from the nation’s top General. ‘Bravo to him for saying it,’ read the Globe editorial.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, minced no words in May 2011 when he addressed the Canadian troops in Kandahar. “The vicious Taliban regime bludgeoned its own citizens, but welcomed the world's worst killers,” he told the Canadian troops on a day he managed to meet, albeit very briefly, just one Afghan citizen. The Canadian chief of staff, General Walter Natynczyk, sang praise of a newly built road to Prime Minister Harper. The new road drove a “dagger in the Taliban’s heart,” the General reportedly told Mr. Harper.
But the editors at The Globe and Mail were not the only ones who got carried away by the tough talking Generals and the elected officials. In fact, Canada’s intellectual enterprise bought the official narrative lock stock and barrel. In a televised debate in March 2008, Professor Janice Stein, who heads the prestigious Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, defended Canada’s presence in Afghanistan and extolled the virtuous contributions by Nato to Afghanistan’s human development.
I was quick to remind Professor Stein during the live telecast that Afghanistan had the third highest infant mortality rate in the world and that Afghanistan was ranked 174 (one of the worst in human development) on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Professor Stein responded with more numbers that were neither true, nor did they make any sense. She said that the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan was “astronomically high, it was something like between 65 and 70 per cent. It has dropped below 50 per cent in the last four years. Why? Because people have access to health services now that they did not have four years ago.”
It would have been great if only it were true. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate in 2008 was 154 deaths per 1,000 live births, which was only 8 per cent lower than four years ago; not a 50 per cent drop as Professor Stein had suggested. What is even more telling is that earlier in 2000, the infant mortality rate was lower under the Taliban rule. Even today, Afghanistan continues to report the world’s highest infant mortality rate.
Another political scientist at McGill University, Professor Stephen Saideman, mistakenly took bloodletting in Afghanistan as a rite of passage for Canada to gain the respect of other countries. “Canada has gained a great deal of influence because of its willingness to lead and bleed in Kandahar,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail.
Despite the sabre rattling by the Canadian civil and military elites, the fact remains that Canadians lacked even the basic understanding of Afghanistan’s ground realities. Their stay in Afghanistan made the soldiers and their Generals no wiser. Even the tough talking General Hillier admitted to this while testifying in Ottawa in 2009. “Yes, we probably detained the occasional farmer – and whether they were farmers by day and Taliban by night, which is often the case, is something that is very difficult to discern,” said the General.
Staying any longer in Afghanistan would not have granted Nato a victory over the Taliban. Nor would it have turned the Taliban into liberals who would support women’s right to higher education. However, talking with, and not merely to, the Taliban will be the first step towards giving Afghans, Pushtuns and others, a chance to heal and rebuild a state and a society of their choice.