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Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

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Here on the dusty streets of Kabul, the recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from teaching negotiation and peacebuilding to members of the Taliban because it is deemed "aiding and abetting a terrorist organization" doesn't make sense. I expected some loss of freedom as an American in a foreign country during a war. I did not expect my own government to take away my freedom to work for peace here in Kabul.

The Supreme Court's ruling that that it is constitutional for Congress to ban any kind of "support" to designated terrorist organizations, even training in negotiation strategies that would help groups move away from a reliance on violence, makes a number of false assumptions.

First. The ruling reinforces the idea that communicating with a group like the Taliban about negotiation strategies legitimizes their cause. This is a weak theory. Negotiation is a strategy for dealing with adversaries. It presumes disagreement. Far from legitimating armed groups, history shows that negotiation training of all armed-groups has been an essential component in the peace processes of almost every civil war in the last twenty years.

Second. The ruling assumes that NGOs conducting negotiation training are a significant factor in the legitimization of terrorist groups. The major forces legitimating the Taliban cause are threefold: Western contractors continue to pay the Taliban huge sums of money to protect their supply lines and development projects. Neighboring countries like Pakistan continue to receive US military aid while many continue to insist they are sending resources to the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan. However, the hordes of Western media who descended on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the days after September 11 to explain to Western audiences "Why they hate us." may be the worst culprits in legitimating and increasing popular support for the Taliban. Congress' current laws guiding the War on Terror are woefully inadequate to cut off the funding and halt legitimization of groups like the Taliban. They are also counterproductive to the positive work NGOs do to curtail terrorism.

Third. The Supreme Court's decision -- which supports Congress' vague law on what constitutes material support to terrorist groups -- assumes that groups like the Taliban have no legitimate grievances that could be pursued through political channels rather than the battlefield. While NGOs have no sympathy for the repressive Taliban agenda on human rights, there is wide recognition here in Afghanistan of the legitimate Taliban frustration with the current Afghan government's rampant corruption and warlords.

Fourth. This week's decision makes an assumption that government personnel are the only ones skilled enough in diplomacy to engage a group like the Taliban. Only a handful of US diplomats have training in principled negotiation and peace processes. Yet dozens of people like myself have PhDs in conflict resolution and decades of experience promoting negotiation and peace in war zones around the world. I serve my country's interest in global peace and security, but I am not an employee of the US government. As American citizens, we deserve the right to practice our profession of conflict resolution between armed groups. It is counterproductive for the US government to block our efforts and presume that our efforts are contrary to its interests.

While the Supreme Court has made its decision, US lawmakers still have an opportunity to remedy this repressive law. US laws should specify more precisely what types of communication are and aren't allowed with terrorist groups. Countries such as Canada and Switzerland allow their citizens to provide negotiation training but not other forms of assistance to terrorist groups that could result in violence. As an American citizen working in Kabul, I hope my country's leaders think about the costs of their current counterterrorist policies and give me back my freedom to work for peace.

See also: The Impact of US Counterterrorism Laws on Civil Society and C-Span coverage of a National Press Club