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AFGHANISTAN - Oct 18 - Don't Cave In To The Taliban.

As recently as Aug. 7, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan declares the Taliban a "defeated" and "spent" terrorist force, and vows publicly, together with President George W. Bush, to finish off the militia. But barely seven weeks later, Karzai has publicly pleaded with the reclusive Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and a notoriously murderous warlord leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to meet with him for peace talks. Referring to them as "Esteemed Mullah, sir" and "Esteemed Hekmatyar, sir", he promised them government positions to bring them on board. The Taliban has shunned his offer and called for withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for such talks - a precondition that Karzai cannot embrace given the dependence of his government on these forces for its survival. What could have led Karzai and his international backers, especially the US, to walk down such a defeatist and dangerous path, which not only sends all the wrong signals to the Taliban and their supporters, as well as the people of Afghanistan, but also makes a mockery of the so-called war on terror? The idea of engaging the Taliban in reconciliation processes is not new. Karzai and the former US ambassador to Afghanistan and now the US representative to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, had floated it as early 2003. In the following year, the two, sharing the Taliban's ethnic Pashtun background, offered amnesty to what they called "moderate Taliban" and invited them to join the political process. Although only a few Taliban figures took up the offer, it alarmed many non-Pashtun Afghans, who had suffered extensively under the Taliban's highly discriminatory, medieval-like rule between 1996 and 2001. This obliged Karzai and many of his Pashtun advisers to go slow on the idea. Karzai's latest desperate call for peace comes against the backdrop of a worsening political and security situation in Afghanistan, especially in the provinces along the border with Pakistan, and increased domestic pressure on a number of NATO governments to curtail what seems to be an endless military involvement in Afghanistan. Despite all the claims of victory by NATO, the Taliban has managed to become far more effective in widening its networks of support and in building its operational and propaganda capacity. In this, the Taliban is assisted by the inability of Karzai to govern effectively, and by the failure of the US and its allies to make much of a difference in the lives of a great majority of the Afghans, who still live in abject poverty. This has generated a political and security vacuum that the Taliban and its supporters have successfully exploited to tie down the resources of the Karzai government and foreign forces through a low grade insurgency. Karzai and many of his allies, especially the US, have now come to feel more heat than they anticipated. Since the US and its allies are not in a position to escalate sharply their troop deployment in Afghanistan, given America's preoccupation with Iraq and the deference of Washington's allies to domestic constraints, Karzai has found it expedient to make another bid for "peace" to take the sting out of the Taliban's insurgency. But he has plainly done so with the support of Bush and Khalilzad, whom he recently met in New York, for Karzai is not in a position to make major policy decisions of this sort without Washington's approval. If the Karzai government enters a coalition with the Taliban, it will not only amount to the defeat of what the US and its allies have been promising in support of building a secure, stable and democratic Afghanistan, but also runs the risk of igniting a savage ethnic conflict in the country. Afghanistan is a very heterogeneous state, truly a nation of minorities. While the Pashtuns form the largest ethnic cluster, with extensive cross-border ties with Pakistan, the majority of the Afghan population is made up of non-Pashtun ethnic groups, which have cross-border ties with other neighbors of Afghanistan: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the event of a Taliban entry to the government, the non-Pashtun groups would most likely seek to re-arm to fight the change. They would receive help from Afghanistan's northern and western neighbors, as well as Russia and India, which would view a Pashtun-led government that included core Taliban figures as seriously detrimental to their interests. The outcome could be another round of bloody ethnic conflict, with foreign forces caught helplessly between various warring factions. No one should underestimate the wider regional implications of such a scenario. Amin Saikal is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Oct 20, 2007
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