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Talking to Terrorists... Again

21/06/2013 12:49 BST | Updated 21/08/2013 10:12 BST
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In the same week that the Obama administration took another step towards another Middle Eastern 'quagmire', the US government quietly announced that it would begin negotiations with the Taliban. Well sort of. One senior US official was at pains to emphasize that these negotiations are likely to be 'long, complex and messy', and might even fail.

And yesterday the US/Nato crony Karzai, clearly sensing that he is likely to be marginalized or even dumped by this process, has said that he doesn't support negotiations and he clearly doesn't favour the establishment of what appears to be a Taliban government-in-exile in Doha - especially since his own government is only in power through rigged elections.

So now the negotiations have been cancelled or at least placed on hold. But none of that changes the fact that the United States has initiated a process of dialogue with a 'terrorist' enemy that was until last week was the antithesis of civilisation, a deadly existential threat to the West etc, etc. After more than a decade of war intended to prevent 'another 9/11' the US has not even insisted that the Taliban sever its links with al-Qaeda as a precondition.

These linkages were always more of a tenuous marriage-of-convenience at best, as Alex Strick van Linschoten and Feliz Kuehn in their meticulous analysis of the Taliban/al Qaeda nexus An Enemy We Created. In 2001 the US insisted that the Taliban and al Qaeda were joined at the hip ideologically and even organizationally, yet even after the 9/11 attacks there was evidence to suggest otherwise.

There was always a difference between the Taliban's religious nationalism and Osama bin Laden's vision of a global Islamist insurgency driven by terrorist spectaculars, but these nuances were conveniently forgotten as the world's only superpower rushed into a 'nation-building' war and occupation that has so far cost between 12,000 and 15,000 civilian deaths and nearly 15,000 casualties amongst the Coalition and Afghan Security Forces.

All this to create a corrupt narco-state made up of former warlords and Karzai carpetbaggers propped up by CIA and M16 'ghost money' and foreign aid, where unemployment stands at 40 percent , where many Afghans have turned back to the Taliban/Haqqani network for justice or security or simply fled their country altogether.

In the early years of the war/insurgency we often heard from the Western governments involved that the Taliban were primitive fanatics who wanted to create a global Caliphate, intent on facilitating more terrorist attacks on the West, who were so far removed from our set of values that they could not be negotiated with, and who demonstrated their barbarity through their 'terrorist' violence.

More recently, the Coalition governments - and Karzai himself - have advocated some form of 'talking with the Taliban' - partly because they hoped to foment factional divisions amongst the insurgents, and partly because it has slowly dawned on NATO that it cannot defeat them. The US in particular, will struggle even to get much of its military equipment out of Afghanistan unless the Taliban let them.

Now Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan with some semblance of dignity, and perhaps hopes to persuade the Taliban to allow it to retain some military bases after the imminent US withdrawal.

So the Taliban have now joined Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins, the IRA, Yasser Arafat, Jomo Kenyatta, the 'Ba'athist dead-enders' of Iraq who joined the 'Sunni Awakening' and many other individuals and organizations who have begun the transformation from 'terrorists' into politicians, governments, and statesmen.

Within the grim panorama of Afghan politics, this is a positive development, even though it has no guarantee of a positive outcome. It isn't a question of whether the Taliban are a likeable bunch, but an organization that effectively controls at least 10 percent of the country can't be ignored. And they are Afghans, something that can't be said of the occupying forces who have tried - and failed - to remake Afghanistan according to their own priorities.

If NATO is going to leave a country that it should never have occupied in the first - and it will leave - then it would be an absolute disaster if Afghanistan were to slip back into the vicious civil wars that completely unraveled the country during the 1990s.

As strong as they are, it's difficult to believe that the Taliban can overthrow Karzai, even when NATO leaves, but they could continue to fight for a long long time and perpetuate the cycle of violence that has wrecked Afghanistan ever since 1979.

For that to be avoided, negotiation and reconciliation between all the political protagonists are essential. It's a process that should have begun a long time ago, and let's hope that it hasn't begun too late, and it helps to put an end to another useless war that should never have begun.