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William K. Barth

William K. Barth

Posted: December 14, 2009 06:11 PM

President Obama Should Negotiate with the Taliban

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"Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."
~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Presidential Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.

Americans oppose insurgency - so much so that President Obama's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, has testified before Congress that the administration plans to send 33,000 more American troops and spend an additional $100 billion in Afghanistan. All this to continue a war against insurgent Taliban forces battling the regime of President Hamid Karzai, which is not only widely regarded as being extremely corrupt, but has also been implicated in heroin-trafficking. This should give us pause to re-examine our opposition to the Taliban, as well as to insurgency broadly defined.

Our anti-insurgency bias is not consistent with our history. The United States was established, in large part, through the actions of insurgent minutemen against King George III's British troops. Even though European colonialism has long since ended, insurgents still continue their battles to eradicate colonialism's legacy. Insurgency is also used by indigenous populations in order to gain self-governance in regions still controlled by states unsympathetic to local political aspirations. It is difficult to understand why Americans should oppose such movements in principle, given that self-determination is jus cogens (universally recognized) as a tenet of international law. Indeed, this principle was first established by President Woodrow Wilson, and the League of Nations, at the conclusion of WWI, in the hope of ending the use of war as a tool to achieve national aspirations.

Whilst insurgencies generally act in the name of self-determination, this does not, naturally, in any way excuse their use of terror-tactics; that is, crimes of violence against civilians. What is the case, though, is that terrorism would very likely be reduced were remedies to be created within international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), as well as other regional bodies, which do not currently recognize insurgent claims. Insurgent groups have no international forum wherein they can present a claim for self-determination, or even statehood.

The UN Human Rights Committee, or other international treaty monitoring bodies, might be suitable for this purpose. In the absence of any international remedy, however, the only alternatives these groups believe that they have to prosecute their grievances are civil protest, or violence.

Since the end of WWII, the United States has consistently opposed insurgent movements throughout formerly European-held colonies in Asia, Africa and India. The most notable instance of this was its opposition to the African National Congress (ANC), which battled South African apartheid for several decades but was for a long time considered to be a terrorist organization (Nelson Mandela, former chair of the ANC, has since been awarded the Noble Peace Prize and served as president of his country). Still another illustration is that of Vietnamese insurgents (the Viet-Cong) who battled first against French colonization, and later, against American troops. We once dismissed Vietnamese insurgents as communist-puppets controlled by Beijing and Moscow; but these same communists today demonstrate Vietnam's independence by having established a partnership with the United States.

The United States is not the only major power to have opposed insurgency with force. Britain, for example, spent most of the last century battling a home-grown insurgency led by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which used terrorism against civilians in the cause of Irish unity and independence. The initial IRA insurgency (1919-1921) resulted in an independent Republic of Ireland, which, since then, has not only become one of the most prosperous states within the European Union, but also enjoys friendly relations with the former colonial power, the UK. The British also decided to negotiate in order to bring an end to another IRA insurgency (1969-2005) over the future of Northern Ireland, negotiations that have yielded a peace settlement making the territory far more stable and open to economic investment and development.

Moreover, in the first half of the twentieth century Indian insurgents lead by Mahatma Gandhi contributed to Britain's ultimate grant of Indian independence, by implementing a campaign of non-violence and non-cooperation; although even Gandhi could not prevent outbreaks of terror tactics. And France has battled its own insurgencies in North Africa; for example, as documented by French cinema in The Battle for Algiers, which portrayed Algerian insurgents bombing Parisian-style cafes.

Negotiating with the Taliban-insurgency would benefit US interests in the region because history demonstrates that negotiation cultivates greater political responsibility, as well moderation within insurgent groups. In short, the objective of such negotiations would be to moderate the Taliban by requiring that they sever their ties with Al Qaeda. For example, last month, former California State Senator Tom Hayden reported an overture by the Taliban, the second since the war began, to distance itself from Al Qaeda in exchange for a political settlement with the Karzai government. Senator Hayden disclosed a report that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar may be prepared to break with Al Qaeda in exchange for a series of power-sharing arrangements with the Karzai government, one of which would involve the stationing in Afghanistan of NATO military peacekeepers from other Islamic states.

In addition, there have been disclosures to the effect that US military sources and the White House might support such a redefinition of the Taliban insurgency, given that they could not be any worse in power than the corruption-plagued regime of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Such a proposal is reasonable because of the confusing geo-strategic contradictions that exist in the region. For example, it is well known that both funding and arms were provided to the Taliban's predecessor, the Mujahideen (in the early 1980s), by the United States CIA working closely with the Pakistani's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. This Afghan insurgency managed to frustrate the Soviet Union's invasion so successfully that President Gorbachev withdrew his forces in 1989.

The war is now in its eighth year and has failed to achieve its basic objective; namely, capturing Osama bin Laden for his crimes against humanity committed on 9/11, and bringing him to justice. President George W. Bush, in fact, rejected an early offer (10/2001) by the former Afghan-Taliban Deputy Prime Minister, Haji Abdul Kabir, to extradite Osama bin Laden in exchange for production of evidence of bin Laden's involvement in 9/11, as well as for an agreement by the United States to end its bombing of Afghanistan. Given the failure of the US military campaigns to capture Osama bin Laden, such negotiations would certainly help our central objective in Afghanistan of apprehending and prosecuting bin Laden and his lieutenants.

It is important to cultivate responsibility within insurgencies by bringing them into the political process. Otherwise, insurgents remain alienated from participation in a government that they consider to be illegitimate. The best way to achieve this result in Afghanistan is by initiating negotiations with the Taliban. Clearly, the Taliban have popular support because, according to one report, they have established the ability to launch their attacks throughout eighty-percent of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Taliban claim representation of the Pashtun, which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

The Pashtuns provided the central leadership for Afghanistan since the eighteenth century. In modern times, the Pashtuns achieved independence from British rule (1921), and led the resistance to the Soviet invasion (1979-1989). The Pashtun are the primary ethnic group within the Taliban, which emerged from southern Afghanistan. The United States military mission in Afghanistan is in danger of losing the battle over 'hearts and minds' because, like the British and the Russians before them, the Americans are easy to perceive as an occupation force that deprives the Pashtuns of self-determination.

The Obama administration's announcement of a troop escalation will only exacerbate the Taliban insurgency. Furthermore, war is always an imperfect tool, because the states that fight wars usually played a key role in the conditions that started them in the first instance. Clearly, the CIA's militarily arming of the Mujahideen to battle against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan helped to lay the ground for the very insurgency that American troops are battling today. The US should initiate negotiations with the Taliban in order to bring Osama bin Laden, and his lieutenants, to justice, as well as to help President Obama's long-term objective of withdrawing American troops, and bringing self-determination to the Pashtuns, as well as the other diverse, smaller ethnic groups that constitute Afghanistan today.