Osama bin Laden was permitted to flee his Tora Bora cave complex to Pakistan and now it appears that his protectors, the Taliban, which the US pledged to defeat, are poised to become Afghanistan’s prodigal sons. The $6 trillion (the war’s financial burden on the US alone) question here is: What were the past 12 years all about? Tens of thousands of Afghan lives have been sacrificed; over 3,000 coalition soldiers have been killed while 50,000 were wounded in action, many requiring care for the rest of their lives.
The terrible price in blood and treasure paid by all concerned could have been brought to a minimum had the Bush administration listened to President Hamid Karzai in December 2001 when he announced that amnesty had been extended to “common Taliban,” including their leader Mullah Omar, provided he renounced terrorism.
The Bush administration was incensed, threatening to deprive the country of donor funding. Karzai had little choice, but to do a U-turn on a wise decision that would have tempered hostilities by permitting moderate Taliban to be reintegrated into Afghan society.
The US was more interested in hyping the evilness of America’s enemies for public consumption than putting Afghanistan’s future on stable ground; a grave mistake it repeated in Iraq by excluding former Baathists from the military and the civil service. When citizens are treated as pariahs, it’s hardly surprising they feel driven to turn their guns on the establishment.
The Taliban are Afghans; they can’t be deported and if either Bush or his successor believed they could be exterminated to a man, they’ve been bitterly disappointed.
Karzai stuck out his neck again in 2008 with an invitation to Mullah Omar to return home for peace talks “so that our children are not killed any more” on condition the Taliban leader promised to abide by the new Afghanistan’s democratic constitution. Then, in 2010, he asked Taliban insurgents to participate in a “grand peace jirga” an idea greeted by a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the White House.
In 2001, after the fall of their stronghold in Kandahar when the one-eyed Mullah Omar was seen fleeing on the back of a motorbike, the Taliban was beaten, bowed and leaderless; thus disposed to make concessions. Not so today, when they’ve extended their influence, fattened their bank balance on expanded poppy production and proved they can survive as a coherent force using asymmetric warfare against some of the world’s most sophisticated armies.
So why is the US seemingly willing to capitulate on its stubborn refusal to dialogue with its foe? Surely the timing is suspect when Taliban bombs were exploding in Kabul last Tuesday, even as Taliban envoys were putting the finishing touches—their trademark white flag emblazed with a verse from the Quran and a plaque inscribed ‘The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’—to their new mission in Doha, set up to facilitate talks.
I strongly suspect that Obama is out to keep up appearances prior to the US military’s scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. If the US and its allies pull out leaving the country still enmeshed in violence, they can hardly claim a believable ‘victory.’ They’ve discovered the hard way that there is no military fix to this conflict, so the only alternative remaining is dialogue; a course which Karzai knew was inevitable all along. A secondary US motive is a prisoner swap that would free a captive US soldier, held by the Taliban since 2009, in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees.
The Afghan president had blessed Obama’s diplomatic outreach on condition that the Taliban refrained from promoting its political ideology on Qatari soil. Clearly the Taliban didn’t get the message when they still hold to the long gone ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,’ which also indicates their lack of respect for a constitution that protects political plurality, individual freedoms and women’s rights.
The offending plaque has now been removed, the flag lowered, but much more needs to be done to smooth Karzai’s ruffled feathers before he can be persuaded to reengage. He is rightly concerned that the black-turbaned militants are acting more like a regime in exile than cap-in-hand outlaws genuinely seeking forgiveness and acceptance.
Whether talks will get off the ground is now in the balance. Shaheen Suhail, the Taliban spokesman in Doha, told AP that hardliners in his camp were furious over the diplomatic furor and so peace talks may no longer be on the cards. The unpalatable truth is that the Taliban hold stronger cards than ever. Afghanistan minus foreign forces will be far easier game for a Taliban takeover, especially when the US is destroying millions of dollars worth of military equipment rather than donate it to Afghan forces.
The Taliban was a creation of the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, said Selig Harrison of the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars at a 2001 conference on terrorism. He said CIA leaders “told me that these people were fanatical, and the more fierce they were, the more fiercely they would fight the Soviets,” adding that he warned them that “we were creating a monster.”
It’s my fear that if the US is unable to tame this creature before its troop drawdown, it will continue its rampage, perhaps for decades to come.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.