Perhaps the Last opportunity for peace in Afghanistan

Jonathan Power


Jonathan Power, for 20 years, a foreign affairs columnist for the
International Herald Tribune; column distributed around the world



The coalition of Western forces has lost 3,000 soldiers during its 10 years of war in Afhganinstan. By comparison the Soviet Union lost 15,000 over its 9 years of war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 89. Politically the Soviet Union had little to show for its troubles. It is a safe bet to say that likewise the US and their NATO allies will have little to show for their troubles come 2014, the date they mean to complete their Afghan withdrawal. Unless ...

As did the Soviet Union the US and NATO will leave behind better roads, better schools, better health clinics and some more. The last few years has seen a remarkable increase in Afghanistan growth rate with infant mortality falling and the number of children being educated rising. But in Afghanistan politics has a way of short-changing humanitarian gains. But this does not have to be so.

The Western chorus is fixated on the Taliban, as if was the worst guerrilla movement the world had seen. Compared with other insurgent movements around the world the Taliban is rather weak. Compare it with the opposition fighters in Libya eighteen months ago or in Syria today where they are waging a war that has devastated a large part of many towns or in Somalia or the Congo where insurgency has brought the countries to their knees. Only because the Taliban gave refuge for a while to Osama bin Laden has it been singled out for the punishing treatment of the last decade, yet it has not wrecked a degree of violence that compares with any of the above.

What are the impediments? Al Qaeda? According to the CIA there are between 50 and 100 of its fighters left. If rooting them out has been the primary aim then the US is spending a billion dollars per terrorist per year. Of course the original purpose of this war, which  was to destroy Al Qaeda not the Taliban, is now lost in the mists of history. It was Al Qaeda not the Taliban that destroyed New York’s twin towers. Indeed the Taliban has never shot a single bullet nor planted a bomb outside Afghanistan and Pakistan


The West must learn to see the Taliban through Afghani eyes. James Ferguson wrote in Prospect magazine that the regime of Taliban’ Mullah Omar (1996 to 2001) was never as bad as it was portrayed. The Taliban emerged in 1994 following five years of civil war that consumed the country after Soviet withdrawal. The Taliban stopped the violence and stabilized the country, banning poppy cultivation among other things. Afghanistan produces 90% of this crop worldwide.

Even some Western NGOs privately admitted Taliban regime was a boon to them. Thanks to Taliban disarmament of the people it became possible for aid workers to travel to remote villages without fear of theft, rape and murder. Today some Taliban leaders have let it be known that they will be happy to see NGOs continuing their work with health and education as long as girls’ schools are separate from boys’.

Respected and well informed Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, wrote on BBC web site last week that Pakistani Military has undergone a dramatic shift in policy in recent times. After a decade spent allowing the Afghan Taliban sanctuary and freedom to sustain its insurgency in Afghanistan, the Military is now pushing for peace talks between the Taliban, the Afghan government and the Americans. A senior advisor to President Hamid Karzai has lately admitted as much.

In 2011 the US began secret talks with the Taliban in Qatar but the Taliban pulled out in March, accusing the Americans of continually changing positions and moving the goalposts. At the time the US military and the CIA were opposed to peace talks and this hamstrung the US delegation. But a new US policy document signals there exists now a greater consensus in Washington for talks with the Taliban.

Pakistan has supported the Taliban for too long and for too long and it has paid a bitter and bloody price, with the war spilling over onto its own territory. Now that Pakistan has changed tack the Americans need to appoint some heavyweight diplomat to take the peace process forward. President Barrack Obama will need to get more personally engaged in the process.

Only a peace deal can and will protect the humanitarian advances made and secure the country’s economic future. Otherwise all will be lost again.