Saturday, February 16, 2008

How to think and talk clearly about the Taliban

I haven’t written Pakistan/Afghanistan updates for a while because I find so much of the public discussion frustrating, majorly misdirected by public officials and military leaders and very seldom corrected by the press.

The most serious problem with the way anyone’s mission has been framed has been the insistence on talking about Afghanistan as a discrete mission, containable and addressable entirely within itself, which it simply never has been. At least in the last year a few Canadian officials seem to have learned to choke out a few words about Pakistan, although it’s hard to know whether we are doing the smart diplomacy that is needed behind the scenes or just the old white-man’s-burden two-step of shifting the blame to a different group of, y’know, those people. But the Bush/Cheney--Musharraf love affair and the regional war – that’s for another post.

About al-Qaeda – what it is, how it operates, what its criminal aims are – I think we have few doubts about that network. (We should have figured out by now how to disassemble them from the top down – interesting that we haven’t heard much about that from our dear leaders, isn’t it?) It seems mistaken to me, however, to think and talk about something called “the Taliban” as if it were the same thing as al-Qaeda or a parallel thing, since it isn’t. I’m not all that keen on arguing that we should be fighting anywhere at any time, but there’s one thing I know for sure about fighting: if you’re going to fight, you have to fight smart, and if you’re misidentifying your opponent for purely rhetorical reasons or to make political points, then you are not fighting smart. Live through Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara lying to themselves about the Viet Nam war, and you never forget that lesson.

Western political and (some) military leaders keep dropping that label, “the Taliban,” into their public statements as a solid object, as a signifier that they expect will trigger knee-jerk reactions from us, and the mainstream press have mainly followed suit. But what do we actually know about the Taliban since 2001? What we knew then was that they were not al-Qaeda, although they had harboured al-Qaeda. They were a tyrannical theocratic political regime, their power-core no doubt intensely ideologically motivated but very small (and reportedly prepared until the last moment to negotiate with the U.S.). Their foot soldiers and followers were not the highly trained cadres of al-Qaeda; they were just ... Afghans, especially Pashtuns, going along to get along.

The power-core of the Taliban no doubt still seethe away in the border regions of Pakistan, perhaps more closely allied now with al-Qaeda than ever, although who knows? They are no doubt organizing the insurgency in the south, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which is their home territory, but again, who are they organizing, and why is that working for them?

Michael Semple can speak clearly and usefully to that question. And I tell you, it makes my brain feel better to listen to someone like Michael Semple, who knows and cares what he’s talking about and can therefore give us straightforward, practical advice.

Semple is one of two UN-EU officials arrested by the Karzai government on Christmas Day 2007 and expelled from Afghanistan for reaching out to what the British government calls “lower-level Taliban,” an engagement that the UN-EU support. Informed sources seem to agree that Semple and Mervyn Patterson fell afoul of a jealous local warlord and probably of Karzai’s own backdoor dealings, probably also because Semple and Patterson’s diplomacy seemed to be having an effect, a good effect. Semple has lived and worked in Afghanistan/Pakistan since the mid-1980s: he is no greenhorn; he is no appeaser; and he is no coward.

Today in the Guardian Semple speaks to the kind of diplomacy that anyone who is genuinely concerned about Afghanistan should recognize as indispensable. Instead of the Taliban, he speaks of “Taliban-led insurgents,” which is closer to the truth, and then he explains where many of the actors in the insurgency in the south come from, how they ended up as part of the undifferentiated enemy that our ignorant prime minister and his blustering generals are trying to scare us with:

Describing the process of wooing Taliban-linked elements away from the insurgency, he cited the example of a leader in Helmand named Mullah Mamuk, whose regional enemies told western forces in 2001 that he was a terrorist, leading to his appearing on a most wanted poster.

"So naturally Mamuk goes to the Taliban to feel safe and takes those men he commands who are loyal to him with him, shows Taliban commanders the poster and says 'It looks like I am now with you,' Semple said.

"The authorities simply got the wrong guy and drove him into the Taliban's hands. Now he is currently fighting against the British in Helmand but in my opinion local leaders like Mamuk can be won back over again." Semple advocated creating a "network of patronage" to lure men like Mamuk away from the Taliban.

"It's worth remembering there are an awful lot of Mullah Mamuks out there who can easily switch sides away from the Taliban and that is why I firmly believe that with good management you could break two-thirds of the insurgents away from those irreconcilables," he said. He added that some of those arrested and taken to Guantánamo Bay during the early period of the US-led invasion had switched sides to the Karzai government.

"Take Haji Naeem Kochi, someone I have known for a very long time in Afghanistan. After 9/11 and the invasion he ended up doing time in Guantánamo Bay," Semple said.

"When he came back ... I met up with him. The first thing I asked him was did he learn any English and he replied: 'Yes, but all I learned was sit up and sit down from the American guards.' Yet despite doing time in Guantánamo he is now a member of the peace commission aimed at reconciling all Afghans."

I think there is an obvious reason that Canadians are not hearing this kind of informed common sense about Afghanistan from Stephen Harper or his ministers or his generals or his continentalist independent panel, or indeed from some opposition leaders. (Hi, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff.) There is a regional war on and we don’t run it; we just dance to the tune. Day by day, it becomes less and less clear why any Canadian political or military leader would want to go on shuffling to that song led by the tone-deaf on the Potomac, but amazingly, they do.

For the sake of your ears and your mind, listen instead to someone with a true voice:

"There are many people who served with the Taliban regime who are now well-placed inside the Karzai regime or else are pillars of Afghan society. They are now living at peace with [it] even if they are critical of it, which is their right," he said. "Our mandate was to support the government's reconciliation process - that's what we were doing in Helmand before Christmas. There is no purely military solution to the current insurgency. There isn't a serious actor in Afghanistan who says the only way forward is to fight your way out."

Cross-posted to POGGE

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