Taking tea with the Taliban

The latest NATO tactic for trying to exit the war in Afghanistan is to reach out to the enemy. Talking with Taliban 'moderates' is now under serious, top level consideration, but do such 'moderates' exist and can they be trusted to finish the job of Operation Enduring Freedom?

Britain and the US want to talk to the Taliban. In other words they are looking for an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and if that means being prepared to talk to the enemy, then so be it. Shooting the enemy hasn’t worked, and really after nearly eight full years of Operation Enduring Freedom, the only vestige of truth in the grandiose name for the war in Afghanistan is the ‘enduring’ bit. The operation has endured and so has the enemy.

The new strategy is not however straightforward because it is neither clear which branch of the all-encompassing, fear-eliciting Taliban regime is it time to take tea with, nor for whom those invited into the tent would speak.

One of the main stumbling blocks to peace must be the corrupt administration of Hamid Karzai. He's been talking with, doing deals with, and doling out amnesties to the Taliban for years. He's even appointed some to his government, but there's been little to show for it.

So it seems from the speech of Britain’s David Miliband that they’d like to talk to “second tier” and moderate Taliban.

Moderate Taliban = good; radical top tier Taliban = bad.

Tantalizing talk of a Taliban tête à tête comes at the end of a massive British effort called Operation Panther’s Claw (sounds just as bizarre as Enduring Freedom), in which the Brits have managed to hold a crucial part of the nightmarish Helmand Province that has been a key domicile of the Taliban for years.

Haven’t we heard this all before? You know way back when the Taliban was initially ‘defeated’, only to resurrect itself like some latter day Lazarus, only this time turbaned and terrifying and rather teed-off that Karzai et al had pronounced its eradication.

Of course, then Karzai began years of negotiations with aforementioned extinct Taliban leaders, which was clearly designed to secure his shaky hold on power, particularly with the powerful Pashtuns. He's one himself, yet is distrusted by his ethnic bros.

It has to be said a worrying aspect of this latest Panther victory, which quickly entered a ‘holding pattern’, was in the immediate death of yet another young British soldier. That is not supposed to happen when a major force is in ‘control’ of a tribal area and victory has been declared. It is however all too frequent an occurrence in Afghanistan.

So to the Taliban talks.

First of all, what if the Taliban doesn’t want to talk? What if it really is in the greater Taliban interest to keep division at a corpse-ridden high?

Assuming there’s been an indication talks are a possibility, who exactly forms this “second tier” Taliban?

Miliband is hoping, like the Americans too, that they can rely on an accepted history of fighters in Afghanistan through the ages, which has at times seen them open to a little wooing away from their team, particularly if they’ve had a gutsful over a lack of pay.

However there’s the equally complex issue of their possibly being true to jihad with genuine ideological devotion. Allah only pays for that with rewards in the afterlife, not with wads of US or British cash. An irredentist jihad beat the Soviets, and jihad is a duty when it comes to protection of Islam and its lands, whether that be from foreign infidel occupiers or Muslims who are seen as having sold out. Those involved in Enduring Freedom fit the first criteria, Karzai for many fits that latter.

Talks have another trap when it is clear the Taliban is far from a homogeneous group. So often its members contradict each other in public statements, either in claiming responsibility for certain kidnappings, in issuing demands in exchange for hostages, or deciding who is authorized to issue various fatwa. As to the relationship between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, who knows any longer? The most sought after man in the world seems strangely absent from current discussions.

What needs to be included, however, should any talks begin in earnest is the plight of Afghani women.

In Pakistan their freedom, dignity and basic human rights were quickly surrendered to the Taliban as a bargaining chip for peace in the Swat Valley – overturned by Lahore now, but only after it was clear the Taliban was never going to stop at making nice in Swat. It had its beady eye on the bigger Pakistani picture, and having been given an inch was out for the mile.

Then there was the legislation about to be passed in Afghanistan, which again targeted women and their rights – including the right not to be raped by their husbands. There was a serious international outcry and Karzai backed down. The issue, however, is that he never even saw any problem with the legislation before it hit the international headlines and began causing him so much discomfort with his international funders. It was suddenly very hot under those dramatic cloaks.

Karzai is up for re-election this month, and despite last week ditching on a televised debate with his two key rivals – citing incomplete policy formulation, which is scary in itself – he is still tipped to win. Lord knows the Americans will not be happy to start funding another Karzai from scratch, although results per dollar to date would show this may be a better investment than hurling more good greenbacks after bad.

Still, it's to be hoped Miliband’s desires to achieve a solution in Afghanistan by offering alternative employment prospects to ‘moderate’ Taliban come to fruition. To be brutally frank though, he’s possibly relieving himself into the wind.

At this stage Karzai, who needs to be seen as part of the problem and not the solution, has endured, so the corruption has endured, the poppies have endured and the Taliban has endured. The freedom that was to be enduring still lags well behind in this deadly mission, and one is left believing it really has long disappeared as the achievable goal for Afghanistan. The true goal now is to get out and get the foreign troops home before too many more are killed; it's curious, really, that New Zealand picks this time to consider going back in.

The new strategy for that is taking tea with the Taliban and hoping – hoping really hard and against all odds – that they will not revert to type when the last helicopter leaves.