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How to talk to the Taliban

February 12, 2010

Lately, there’ been a lot of talk about talking to the Taliban, and talking to the Taliban about talking to the Taliban. I wonder what high-level policy think-tank came up with this harebrained scheme; after nearly a decade of violence, someone sitting in a conference room must have snapped their fingers and said, “I’ve got it! Why don’t we ‘talk’ to the Taliban?” There must have undoubtedly been a flurry of official documentation, and policy ruminations about why talking to the Taliban would be a stronger strategy than indiscriminate bombing. Well what can I say other than ‘Wow!’ I mean all this advanced industrial infrastructure, these exquisite academic institutions, and all that jazz, and it took them this long to do a 180-degree policy turnaround after shamelessly going for a completely failed strategy for this long.

And together with Osama Bin Laden’s surprise eco-friendly green message for the American people, compared to last year’s prediction of mortgage market meltdown, I’m beginning to wonder if we’re actually in a Bizarro World. One where iTunes sells Osama audio clips for 99 cents a piece, where the Taliban are part of a hit Broadway burqa-flashing musical, and where the Pakistani administration has forgotten all about Afghanistan and has gone hunting for “strategic depth” in all sorts of places like Kirghizstan and Botswana. If only this were the case it would be so much easier to make sense of the world-as-bizzaro-reality. But sadly this isn’t so, the strange and the unruly all get meshed up into the very real in the here-and-now, and this isn’t some messed up dream of a science fiction columnist in a gossip rag.

Coming back to reality, bizarre as it may be, America seems to be in uncharted territory, as eight years of the Bush Doctrine has made legislators, policy makers, and diplomats completely forget how to even go about ‘talking with the terrorists’ let alone actually go about ‘negotiating’. So as the Obama administration had initially come up with this simplistic yet extremely radical formula of good Taliban and bad Taliban, it seems things have become more complicated. Probably because the good Taliban must have told them to talk to the bad Taliban first, and talking to the bad Taliban first would definitely make the US come off as stupid.

In order to avoid this humiliation, it seems the formula has been made a little more complex as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, “We’re not going to talk to the really bad guys.” Okay, so let me get this straight: in the wild wild west of the Afghan bad-lands there’s good guys, there’s bad guys, and there’s the really bad guys. She could’ve easily stuck to the gung-ho cowboy mentality and said “Oh, don’t worry, we’re not going to talk to the ugly ones.”

So now it seems that, just like the ‘I-raqi people’, the ‘Af-gan people’ are responsible for the way their country goes. And after that sham election even dictators are ashamed of referring to as an election… oh wait, don’t I mean the one that was supposed to empower liberal institutions in Afghanistan? It must’ve really come as a shocker to US decision-makers when they discovered that Afghanistan doesn’t have any institutions, let alone liberal, with everything being conducted through warlords. You’d probably have to go through a warlord to pay your electricity bills – assuming they still have electricity.

And whatever happened to that idea of the Afghan National Army being the force for peace and prosperity in the region (a.k.a protracted civil war)? It only took a few well infiltrated bombings here and there for American strategicians to scrap that idea and go back to the drawing board. And all they could come up with is a massive marketing operation to rebrand the good and the ‘not that bad’ Taliban as the new reformulated Afghan National Army, by throwing out buckets full of money.

And if the Taliban are nothing more than money-grubbing buggers, then wouldn’t it be easier if the Americans had just offered the then Taliban administration a fraction of the cost of the war in exchange for Osama bin Laden back in 2001. Wouldn’t that, in retrospect, have been so much simpler than this fiasco we’ve had to witness over the first decade of the twentieth century? Now after all the bombs and the shelling, epidemics of firebrand conservatism and blow yourself LIVE on TV performance art, it seems the Taliban have suddenly learnt how to talk. Oh wait, maybe I’m getting this wrong. We might need to revisit this.

Remember when Bush said, “We’re gonna bomb ‘em to the Stone Age!” Well, he really wasn’t kidding about that. Those cluster bombs were actually designed to backtrack millions of years of evolution, so by the end of the ‘bombing to the stone age’ the Taliban had not only lost lingual capabilities, they’d also almost washed their hands with opposable thumbs and other evolutionary conveniences. This momentary lapse of language wasn’t to stop the Taliban from re-integrating themselves with the modern societies around them. So what they did was put themselves on the extra-fast, fast-track to reintegration. The amazing feat of rediscovering millions of years of genetic memory in less than a decade was achieved by the intense ratta learning method of the madrassah establishment in Afghanistan – one whip lash if you get a word wrong, two whip lashes if you get the word wrong with a smile on your face.

The Taliban really haven’t failed us or themselves. By rediscovering language they have put themselves in a position to once again converse with the civilized world; now they can re-integrate, and become a part of the marvelous modern spectacle. Now President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton can just pick up the phone and call the Taliban (but not on a conference call, for the Taliban might get confused as to how two different voices are coming out of the same box). Negotiation will obviously have to be monosyllabic at first, basic requests phrased in very basic terms filled with praise, “O You Taliban! Mighty people of this great land.”

And since the Taliban don’t yet have a concept of money, maybe favors can be bartered with them instead; 50 million goats and 20 million lambs in exchange for their cooperation and a guided tour of their fabulous land. One wouldn’t want to re-introduce them to money all too quickly though, their untarnished minds might get befuddled by the dollar bills, and the conspicuous shade of green might bring back traumatic memories which might inspire them to wage war on the evil specter of capitalism all over again (without knowing exactly why, or what, they’re fighting for, but fight they must!).

And with everything peaceful on the Afghan front, the Pakistani “dis-establishment” would be wondering how they lost all that “strategic depth,” and how was it that they were left with all the “strategic shallowness” instead. Maybe what they thought of as deep wasn’t really that deep, but a pretence of depth just to let them feel smart about themselves: “Oh yes, we’re deep, not only deep, but strategically deep.” I bet they feel stupid now, as all their depth dissipates. Especially after the Obama administration didn’t let them utter a word to the Taliban on their own side of the border. “No! You cannot talk to terrorists,” came the dictum over an overseas call. “You must bomb the terrorists!” And bomb we did, not quite back to the Stone Age – since we’re not as technologically advanced, our bombing took them back to the Middle Ages instead.

Maybe we should try calling up our Taliban and try talking to them, they might respond in Shakespearian Middle English, but that’s nothing expert negotiators like Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman shouldn’t be able to circumvent. But sadly, the Pakistan government wants too much to be like its big bad-ass brother, the United States, so instead of talking to our own Taliban, we go ahead and say, “We also want to talk to the Afghan Taliban.” Claiming that the Pakistani Taliban just aren’t bad-ass enough for us, “Oh come on, they just learnt how to talk again, we’re neighbours, don’t you think we should get to know them better?” Thinking “strategic depth” all the while, repeating that mantra in our heads. We can never get enough of the stuff at home, we have to go around forking stuff in other countries to feel good about ourselves.

I bet the Pakistani Taliban feel left out of the equation though. No one wants to talk to them, not even the Afghan Taliban. But then again, they might be able to go the route of washed up celebrities and get their own reality show. Maybe they could get a Big Brother style house, but all the members in it have to abide by the Taliban Code of Ethics, otherwise they get flogged on camera. The Pakistani Taliban are going to be bigger and more famous than ever. They’ll have it all: picture on the cover of Time magazine, on a few of those 100 sexiest people list, on The Late Show with David Letterman, showing off their green turbans to fashion gurus on the red carpet ceremony of the Academy Awards.

Of course, the Pakistani civilian “mis-administration” and military “dis-estabilishment” won’t feature in too much of the fame, maybe in a couple of gossip rags with headlines like “We Talked to Afghan Taliban in 2010 Too.” Or maybe they could author some of those cheap paperbacks, with titles like, “The Taliban and Us: Memoirs from a Time Forgotten.” Maybe they would feature for a few minutes in a posthumous documentary about how the Taliban made it to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. “Well yes, we always knew they would have extreme potential, extreme obviously because they were such extremists, we always knew they had potential. Why we did not act on it, we do not know, we could’ve made some money off of them, but you know how the times change. Yes they were a great bunch, those were great fun days.”

asifakhtar80x80
Lahore-based Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art and is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel. He blogs at http://e-scape-artist.blogspot.com/ and tweets at http://twitter.com/e_scape_artist.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.