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Talking with the Taliban


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enter image description hereWhat 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.

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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Ayesha Khan Jun 19, 2013 07:02pm

This is just another planned venture by the US, and its Western allies. It is easy for the US to accept and reject any at their convenience. Any ordinary person can understand that those who were rejected and despised by the US only yesterday are now in their main focus.

Why US has developed so much sympathy for the Afghans, when at home there are officially about 50 million people who are surviving on the food stamps. The poverty in America is no less, than in any other third world country after looking the size of the nation. Moreover, the lethal diseases that are on the surge with the unemployment, is another issue.

The main strength of US is in the wealth, they cannot move an inch without having an abundance of wealth. After the strategies failed in Iraq, and Libya they turned their focus towards Afghanistan, because it is highly enriched in Lethium, and the oil and the gas reserves as well. The elite private sector, of the US does not support the government, except for the apparent tax deduction.

Presently the Europe, and the US are hit by extreme slow growth. But even then the FED, and the Bank of England is printing billions of dollars per day, without realizing how will they balance the economies. Afganistan is a fertile country and the main attraction is in the soil.

Mr Karzai was not good enough to let them stay after 2014, and as its nearing the US was much concerned how to remain in the Afghan soils, and finally they thought that mutual alliance with Taliban's would solve their problem. Well, let's see what will be the outcomes of their meetings--I am not optimistic at all--

Moeen H Jun 19, 2013 07:10pm

Imran Khan stands vindicated!

Parvez Jun 19, 2013 11:29pm

Interesting and does make one think.............but then you are forced to say the one truth that prevails is that ' might is right '.......every time.

BRR Jun 19, 2013 11:43pm

Mr. Haider is very keen, almost bubbling with joy, at the opportunity to criticize the Canadians, and NATO in general, for the war in Afghanistan- one which NATO did not seek, one which was brought on by the Taliban themselves by their actions and those of people they willing gave sanctury to - the Al Qaeda. Mr. Haider might want to be a "I told you so" type of individual, but he has neither the wisdom nor the insight to solve this taliban problem either, and all he can do is criticize what others have attempted. That there is no easy solution is a given, we don't need him to say that. However, the end of this war is inevitable, as is the hardships the people will go through once the taliban come back to power - does he have a plan to avert the disaster - now that NATO does not have one, and he, in his infinite wisdom claims they were wrong all along?

JMK Jun 19, 2013 11:49pm

Yes all tailor made by US while Pakistan has been slumbering and in the cruise control of Islamization for two decades now.

The "good" Afghan Talebans are now going to be rewarded by US and will be used against and obliterate Pakistan and possibly deservingly so.

Muhammad Awais Jun 19, 2013 11:58pm

: Well Taliban are a force finally accepted by the Americans such a long time they took to agree on this fact and during this time blood of innocents shed in the suicide bomb blasts is the result of all this action. Tried to killing the Talibans with drone strikes but all in vain and now finding no other new action agreed upon the talking, this shows that Americans are nothing.

Vakil Jun 20, 2013 12:11am

What? "chance to heal" ? Did I really read this, or was it my imagination going crazy??? Just WHAT kind of "healing" does this author think that the Taliban can be a part of? These are people (and frankly, that is a "healing" compliment enough to say that!) who know only how to INFLICT !! It's in their very being to do so and nothing in the world is going to change that - this everyone knows. My friends from Pakistan.... BEWARE - very soon chaps like this will even be suggesting involving the likes of TTP being given a "chance to heal" ... wait for it... IN Islamabad (not just "with") ... Surely all this is the FARCE of the CENTURY ...!!

Xizer Jun 20, 2013 12:15am

What will talking to a bunch of terrorists achieve? Are you saying one can negotiate with fanatics who have no respect for human rights at all (they proved this by their barbaric rule while in power)?

farhan Jun 20, 2013 09:38am

Deploying military in Afghanistan should have been last on the list to tackle war on terror. Political dialogues are now taking place after losing millions of innocent lives and creating several militant groups. The strategy to wipe off talibans from this region turned out to be a disaster. It's a time to seriously take those leaders who have condemned America's foreign since day one.

Iqbal Jun 20, 2013 10:27am

i fail to understand how the villains of yester-year become a negotiatable party?

ailly Jun 20, 2013 04:03pm

@Ayesha Khan:

Too funny blog, i have read in a long time... Bank of England printing US DOLLARS and that too in billions ? did anyone in Dawn checked whether this blog needs to be printed, any criteria for publishing such ill-informed blogs ?

one things for sure i shared this joke with my friends viz sms, world apps.... nice fun reading your blog.

Latif Khan Jun 20, 2013 08:27pm

America is a super power and has got sufficient experience in invasion of countries and pulling out with no or little damage. It has learnt the lesson from similar situations like the one when Britishers were pulling out of South Waziristan at Shahur Tangi (narrow pass), where Mehsuds attacked the British convoy and devastated them with considerable losses, men and material. America knows this very well that this could happen to them and they will face the same fate, while they are pulling out of Afghanistan. In order to avoid these consequences they have extended their friendly hands to Taliban and lip service to Afghanistan. This will cost them a few dollars and in return they will earn Talibans favour, perhaps. The negotiation with Pakistan would never be fruitful because TTP will never lay down their guns, never accept Pakistani Laws and neither be friends because their purpose is different.

Ali Jun 20, 2013 10:09pm

In order to get into "legalized" system of power and political autonomy all you have to do is start blowing up people and terrorize them. At least this is the message from negotiating with Talibans. All the comments said earlier about Talibans being terrorists, murderers and what not are true because they are such people. If Pushtoons need a voice then NATO should help bring up a civil uprising which gives Pushtoons a chance to choose peaceful leader not militants.

Mohammad Adam Khan Jun 21, 2013 02:13am

If Talibans have made their minds to settle down things on the table, then why they have been started Jihad against USA and allied forces. This decision of Taliban looks stupid to me. I mean, it is like that; if you would ask someone to negotiate on Namaaz

rizwan Jun 21, 2013 04:04am

Yes the war in Afghanistan did not have the best results, but what exactly is going to be the fruit of talks with Taliban? What will you discuss with people whose ideology is that their version of religious interpretation is the only acceptable one , that women should not have any education and that men without beards should be in prison ? Are you going to sit at the table and convince them otherwise? No, I think these talks are only so that America can leave Afghanistan in somewhat peaceful atmosphere than when they came in. Later after they have left, Afghans will start battling among themselves again, everybody knows in that case the bearded ones will be the winners and we will be back to square one after a decade.

Latif Khan Jun 21, 2013 02:52pm

World believes that Americans are super power and have come through many invasions and pulled out with no or little damage. They have learnt lessons from the past in similar situations. It is not an easy task to leave Afghanistan safely while passing through Afghan terrains and entering into Pakistan where hawks (TTP and others)are waiting eagerly at the border to welcome them as their brothers Mehsuds did it with Britishers at Shahoor Tangi in South Waziristan when they ambushed the final convoys which was passing through the narrow pass. The British forces were devastated and suffered considerable losses in men and materials.

Therefore, providing few dollars to Taliban and with lip service to Afghan Administration, the American wants to pull out safely. If this trick works out well, they will save their skin which may help to save forces behind after 2014.

Regarding Pakistan decision to talk to TTP, that does not come under the above equation and has different purpose and agenda. TTP does not accept Pakistan and its constitution. They are divided into various groups. There is no one voice of TTP. I think people should not press for talks with TTP until they declare no violence and lay down their guns.

Latif Khan, M.Sc. C.Eng; M.R.I.N.A.

Senior Design Safety Engineer

world marketer Jun 21, 2013 03:15pm

Interesting and does make one think.............but then you are forced to say the one truth that prevails is that ' might is right '.......every time.

Latif Khan Jun 21, 2013 05:10pm

@Ayesha Khan: The aim of US is to pull out safely from Afghanistan and retain some presence after 2014. By talking to Taliban, they will achieve these goals. US knows how to play with Afghans.