by Eric Martin
This, from an e-mail correspondence with the Wall Street Journal's Anand Gopal re-printed with his permission, sums up why it is both repugnant yet necessary to attempt to negotiate with certain Taliban factions as part of the effort to establish a durable settlement to the many-sided conflict:
...Mullah Omar...[is] not that far removed from the society he came from. The Taliban did not just drop out of the sky one day--they are expressions of the rural, pre-modern, reactionary outlook prevalent in the Pashtun hinterlands. Women are essentially enslaved in these rural Pashtun areas, and this has little if nothing to do with the Taliban. Take a trip through the Pashtun countryside and you will meet many "women-hating, porn-fearing, music-despising people." I remember during my first week as a journalist in Afghanistan, I went to the aftermath of U.S. bombing raid and asked one man for the name of his wife (who had been injured). He pulled out a gun, slammed me to the floor and nearly killed me (because mentioning a man's wife in public is tantamount to adultery in those areas). Another time I remember a female Afghan friend I had (a university student) who made a call to a radio-call in show to request a song. When her family found out they cut all of her fingers off and force fed them to her (because singing and music is sinful). In fact, the word for musicians and public performers in Pashto -- dum -- is also a derogatory term!
The point isn't to excuse Mullah Omar or be a sort of moral relativist but rather to explain that the Taliban are products of the society they were born from and it isn't productive to call them "nuts". It will take years of modernization, urbanization and de-tribalization to change the cultural outlook in these areas, I believe. In the meantime, Mullah Omar and his ilk have shown themselves to be quite rational, with a sensible strategy to try and reclaim power. They've even gone a step further recently, expunging most references of Islam from their statements. They've gone out of their way to remove commanders who treat the population poorly and have instituted a mechanism to deal with complaints from locals. This isn't because they are a humanitarian organization all of a sudden but because they (like the Americans) realize that the population is the prize and they are trying to do everything they can to win them over. Therefore they are a very different movement from the one that ruled in the nineties.
In truth, many of the warlords and former Taliban factions cobbled together in the Karzai government harbor the same retrograde attitudes toward women and modernity. Nevertheless, that is the society that we are dealing with, and part of the reason that some of the more grandiose notions of nation building need to be tempered. That is also why talk of wiping out the Taliban is so misguided.
Gopal's observations are also germane in terms of dispelling the notion that one or another faction represents the Afghan people while the other doesn't. In the regions described, these are the Afghan people in most instances. This is a notion that I tried to convey in a post in early October:
In the debate over the future of US policy in Afghanistan, it is taken as a given by most proponents of prolonging the occupation that our presence is benefiting the Afghan people...In fact, through repetition and embellishment, the factions that we are supporting have become stand-ins for the entire Afghan population, at least in the abstract. To leave, it is argued, would be to abandon "Afghanistan" the nation, or the "Afghan people," writ large.
This formulation ignores the obvious rejoinder that for US forces to stay and battle the "Taliban" (whatever that term is supposed to mean on any given day) means to target large swaths of that same Afghan population. Some of the anti-government groups are remnants of the Pashtun-dominated Mullah Omar-led Taliban that hosted al-Qaeda, some are entirely unrelated tribal entities, some are ordinary Afghans radicalized by the presence of a foreign occupying army, some are narco-warlords defending their turf and revenue stream, some smaller group are foreign fighters, etc.
Regardless of the exact identity and motivations, and aside from the small group of foreign fighters, the people that we are killing also count as the Afghan people. In actuality, we are protecting certain Afghan factions while doing our best to kill others. It is an unstated, reflexive act of dehumanization to associate our favored factions with the "Afghan people" while relegating those groups that oppose the Afghan government to some form of limbo status in terms of their humanity/national identity.
Admittedly, it weakens the attractiveness of the narrative.