"You are with us, or you are with the terrorists," declaimed President George Bush in his now infamous speech to Congress following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Now, the US is thinking of talking to the terrorists.
On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal reported on a "policy review" in which the Bush Administration is considering opening talks with elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In neighbouring Pakistan, the US has endorsed a Pakistan Government initiative to arm tribal militias, or lashkars, to hunt or recruit pro-Taliban militants in that country.
"Ultimately," says US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, "there has to be… reconciliation [with the Taliban]as part of a political outcome to this."
It is difficult to calculate the internal dynamics within the Bush Administration that have led to this dramatic policy shift.
The US has come a long way since the day, in February 2002, that then-Taliban Foreign Minister Maulvi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil approached US officials to initiate a dialogue. Mutawakkil was arrested and spent the next four years at Guantanamo Bay. The world’s superpower may now be rueing the missed opportunity.
There have been suggestions that General David Petraeus — former commander of US forces in Iraq and, from today, commander of all US forces in East Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia — has been spearheading the push for a more conciliatory approach to the Taliban. He supports talks with what he calls "reconcilable elements" within the Taliban.
Petraeus’ endorsement stems from the success of a similar reconciliation effort, known as the Sunni Awakening, launched in Iraq when he was in charge of US forces there. Under the Sunni Awakening, thousands of Sunni militants, many of whom fought the US when it invaded the country in 2003, were paid by the US to fight Al Qaeda and their allies.
Of course paying tribal militants to fight for Western forces is not a novel solution to Afghanistan’s problems. It is a tactic used from the onset of the US invasion of the country in October 2001. It was also used during the Soviet occupation from 1978 to 1989 and, intermittently, by the British, a century earlier. Sadly, the tactic has made Afghanistan more volatile, not less.
Yet it is clear that the US is becoming increasingly desperate for a policy shift towards the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama have publicly stated that they will escalate the US military presence in Afghanistan. Obama, currently in an apparently unassailable electoral position, has been particularly bellicose, stating that his Administration would even consider unilateral attacks in Pakistan in the pursuit of Al Qaeda militants. That may not seem the strongest evidence for negotiations with the Taliban, but future strikes may target only those pro-Taliban militants that refuse overtures from the US.
The Americans are not the only ones now openly speaking of dialogue with the Taliban.
Britain’s top soldier and diplomat in Afghanistan, the UN’s special envoy and the Chief of the French Army have all already concluded that peace in Afghanistan can only be secured through dialogue with the Taliban.
These comments represent an astonishing reversal of political calculations in Afghanistan. Last year President Hamid Karzai expelled two European diplomats for seeking to negotiate a truce with the Taliban in Helmand province.
In contrast, this year pro-Taliban militants and the Afghan Government have held several meetings with a view to the former swapping weapons for political representation.
In September, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi Government hosted a week of talks between the Afghan Government and elements of the Taliban and aligned militias. Although largely an ice breaker, the talks, which involved the Afghan President’s brother, Qayyum Karzai, reflect the political vacuum created by the US occupation of the country since October 2001. While Western governments still mull over the prospect, Kabul and Riyadh have been quick to pitch a political settlement to the Taliban and other disaffected, predominantly Pashtun, tribes that have aligned themselves with the jihadi movement.
According to the Washington Post, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar said he would consider ending ties with Al Qaeda, following a demand voiced by the Karzai Administration during the Saudi peace talks. The veracity of this claim remains to be determined.
Another initiative known as the "Mini-Jirga" (or tribal meeting) has seen Afghan and Pakistan Government officials and tribal chiefs meet to discuss ways to develop dialogue and reconciliation with the Taliban and other warring militants.
Both Governments agreed to hold talks with militants if they abided by the Afghan and Pakistan constitutions, a move calculated to compel the Taliban to accept a political solution. Significantly, however, Pakistan and Afghanistan backed down on an original demand that the militants first renounce violence.
In response, a Taliban spokesperson was quoted as saying that the movement would not support the Jirga’s proposals until all foreign troops had left Afghanistan. Another told Al Jazeera that the Taliban would not accept portfolios within the Karzai Government either.
Such violent intransigence may suggest that a negotiated settlement of hostilities is unlikely to materialise any time soon.
Alternatively, it may mean that the Islamic movement once famed for its rigid doctrines and strict fealty is splintering into different camps with varying degrees of antipathy towards the Western presence in Afghanistan or the Government it props up. If that is the case, negotiations will prove to be an equivocal solution.
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