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Is peace in Afghanistan at hand?


The Guardian’s Jon Boone writes from Kabul:

Taliban leaders to be offered exile under Afghanistan peace plan

KABUL, May 5 – Top Taliban leaders could be offered exile outside Afghanistan if they agree to stop fighting the government of Hamid Karzai, a long-expected peace plan by the Afghan government will propose later this month.

The far-reaching proposals, seen by the Guardian, also call for "deradicalisation" classes for insurgents and thousands of new manual jobs created for foot soldiers who renounce violence.

The long-delayed Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme has emerged just as Karzai prepares to go to Washington for talks with Barack Obama…

Western powers are likely to be pleased by the level of detail about the new High Level Peace Council, which will take over from a notoriously chaotic predecessor body accused of reintegrating fighters who subsequently took up arms again.

However, diplomats are worried that the government lacks the capacity to implement a programme that calls for complex activities in around 4,000 villages …

If they agree to lay down their arms and cut ties with al-Qaida they will be entitled to an amnesty against prosecution for any crimes they may have committed. They will also be issued with a biometric "reintegration card". They will then be offered a "menu" of options designed to keep them peacefully occupied, including vocational training in such trades as carpet-weaving and tailoring. …

By far the most controversial option is the option for former insurgents to join the Afghan army or police force. … (link)

There is of course one thing missing from the peace plan, at least as outlined by in the Guardian. No mention is made of the Taliban’s central demand, which is the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. However, the plan does not appear to preclude any outcome on that question, but simply side-steps it. While it does appear to block certain outcomes (e.g. power sharing by Taliban leaders), it seems to leave the status of foreign troops open. Perhaps, then, this plan is considered a starting point for negotiations which would address that more central question.

Also in the Guardian, veteran correspondent Jonathan Steele has a fascinating report focusing on women’s attitudes toward negotiations with the Taliban. The article uncovers some rarely-discussed aspects of the Taliban, such as the fact that the Taliban leadership authorized women to study medicine during their reign inthe 1990′s.

Afghanistan: is it time to talk to the Taliban?
Jonathan Steele – Guardian – May 4

… Perhaps most surprisingly, even among Afghanistan’s small but determined group of woman professionals, the notion of making a deal with the ultra-conservative men who forced them into burkas and denied them the right to work outside the home is no longer anathema. A desperate desire for peace is trumping concern over human rights. …

I was one of the few journalists in Kabul as the Taliban swept up from Kandahar to take control of the Afghan capital in 1996, prompting the mujahideen warlords to abandon resistance and flee. The sudden shift left everyone stunned, but the crowds that came out to watch the Taliban’s pick-up trucks roaring around the streets were mainly supportive. …

[E]ven as repression grew women could still be heard saying that their family’s new-found safety from the civil war’s shells and rocket-fire made it worth it.

A similar calculus of security-versus-rights is re-emerging now. Three years ago, when I was last in Kabul and the Taliban were only just starting their comeback on the battlefield, defeating them was the watchword of the day. There has been a tectonic shift in Afghanistan’s public mood since then. It is prompted by a host of factors: growing disappointment with western governments and the ineffectiveness of billions of dollars in aid that seems to go nowhere except into the bank accounts of foreign consultants or local politicians; a sense that there can be no military solution to the new civil war and that outsiders are deliberately prolonging it; grief and despair over the mounting toll of civilian casualties, many caused by US airstrikes; rising nationalist anger and a feeling of humiliation; and a desire to return to an Afghan consensus in which Afghans create their own space and find their own solutions. Karzai’s recent outbursts against the Americans and other foreigners are no aberration. They reflect a widely held mood.

Over two afternoons, I sit down over tea with a group of six women professionals. If anyone should be suspicious of the Taliban, it would be educated women like these. In varying degrees they all favour negotiations. Though they do not want their names used, so I will identify them by the letters A to F.

A is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and the one from which almost all Taliban come. She was already a refugee in Pakistan when the Taliban took over, having fled in 1993 at the height of the civil war. She only returned to Kabul after the Taliban were overthrown.

B, also a Pashtun, lived under Taliban rule. She feels the US, Pakistan and other foreigners are manipulating the war and even have the elusive Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, under their influence. I encounter this sense of the Taliban as puppets, even victims, in numerous conversations with Afghan men as well as women.

"It’s an excuse for foreigners to occupy Afghanistan and stay here," says A. "That’s why the war continues. It’s not a war against the Taliban. It’s a war for their own objectives."

B says Taliban rule had positive as well as negative sides. As a woman, you couldn’t work, "but if you were walking in the street no one could kidnap you. We felt safer than now, when there are all these security guards and other people with guns who can abduct a woman at any time." …

F, a Tajik, says she has noticed Taliban members presenting themselves as nationalists more than Islamists these days. …

Anders Fänge, the country director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, a large aid agency, has spent around 20 years in the country, also working as a journalist and a UN official. The Taliban should never have been portrayed in the black-and-white terms that Bush and Blair used, he says. During their period in power they often turned a blind eye to the discreet "home schools" where teachers taught girls in people’s flats or family compounds. "In 1998 the Taliban governor of [the central Afghan city] Ghazni told me, ‘We know you have these girls’ schools, but just don’t tell me about them.’ A Taliban minister even approached me and said, ‘I have two daughters. Can you get them in?’" he recalls.

Similar attitudes exist today, he says. In Wardak, a province close to Kabul that is heavily contested by Taliban and Nato forces, "we don’t have much problem with the Taliban," says Fänge. "They accept girls’ schools and women doctors. They just ask for two hours of Islamic education in schools, that teachers grow beards and not spread propaganda against the Taliban."

The difficulty comes from foreign Taliban, the Pakistanis and Arabs, or Taliban from other provinces. "At the local level, it’s a patchwork, a mosaic of local commanders, who may recognise Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader but are not under his control," he adds.

Fänge’s points support the case, rarely mentioned by western politicians, that Taliban conservatism differs from the rest of the country in degree, not in kind. Afghanistan is a largely rural society where the oppression of women runs deep. Even in villages populated by Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek, Afghan women are routinely banned by husbands or fathers from leaving the family compounds, and girls are kept out of school, according to Afghan women reporters.

… Arsalan Rahmani was deputy minister of higher education and later minister of Islamic affairs in the Taliban government. Four years ago Karzai invited him back to Kabul and made him a senator. He accepts the Taliban made a string of mistakes. "They didn’t have good management, they were young, they had no experts, doctors, and couldn’t run ministries. My boss was a boy of 25, who couldn’t even sign an official letter."

He describes reports of restrictions on girls’ education and women being denied the chance to work as false. "That wasn’t their idea, then or now. We didn’t let girls go to school because of lack of security. There was a war on. But now in Pakistan, Taliban girls go to school and university. My son is a doctor and I want him to marry a lady doctor. I’ve got three daughters. During the Taliban time they were in Pakistan and all studied there."

He goes on to tell an incredible story. "When I was deputy minister of higher education, people came to me and said they had girls who had finished school and wanted to study medicine. I consulted Mullah Omar and he authorised us to set up rooms in a central Kabul hospital, now called Daoud Khan hospital, where women could study to become doctors. Around 1,200 graduated, and if you track them down you’ll see my signature on their degree certificates," he says.

I have no time to follow his advice but I do locate Shukria Barakzai, an independent woman MP who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation, the four-year rule by mujahideen warlords, and the Taliban period. She confirms the senator’s story.

Like many educated Kabulis, she criticises the warlords as strongly as the Taliban (during the warlords’ clashes she lost a son and daughter). She too favours talks with the Taliban. "I changed my view three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own. It’s not that the international community doesn’t support us. They just don’t understand us. Everybody has been trying to kill the Taliban but they’re still there, stronger than ever. They are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that. Every war has to end with talks and negotiations. Afghans need peace like oxygen. People want to keep their villages free of violence and suicide bombers."

Her relaxed attitude to the Taliban stems, in part, from confidence that they cannot win again. "They no longer have the support and reputation they had back then. Taliban is an ideology. It’s no longer a united force," she says. … (link)

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