Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Karzai government reaches out to Taliban: Desperation or Realism?

The BBC reported that President Hamid Karzai has made a tentative offer for reconciliation talks with the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. This offer does not apply to all that falls under the broad umbrella of today's Taliban which comprises Afghanis opposed to the NATO occupation of the country, Pakistani nationals, and other foreign sympathizers. As Karzai's spokesman Hamayun Hamidzada put it, "What we're doing is opening the door of negotiation for those Taleban who are actually Afghan."

This new stance by the Karzai government appears to have several possible causes. In August the much-touted meeting of the jirga between influential Pakistani and Afghani tribal figures aimed to stem the rising tide of militant activity and recruitment was ineffectual. In fact, the aftermath of the jirga has been marked by an increase in attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan and on Pakistani forces in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The failure of the jirga is probably partially due to the fact that the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami (a fundamentalist mujahideen party led by Hekmatyr who helped drive the Soviet army from Afghanistan in the 80s) were barred from participation.

Karzai's current willingness to reach out to the insurgency probably has alot to do with the failure of diplomatic solutions which exclude the Taliban. It remains to be seen whether such a gesture will be welcomed or even effective. The Taliban has become a diverse organization with different goals and opinions. The only common thread that seems hold the organization together is the desire for the return of an Islamist state governed by their draconian interpretation of sharia law.

While the central Taliban leadership has refused to meet with Karzai until foreign forces have left the country, it appears that local groups have been willing to talk. As Mr. Hamizada put it, the Afghan government is reaching out to talk "with those who actually wanted to join the political process, or just come back as ordinary citizens." Essentially, the Karzai government is offering amnesty to local grown anti-government forces. The very existence of diverse goals and methodologies of the various Taliban groups shows that this could possibly be step in the right direction.

Not surpisingly, Afghanistan suffers a level of suicide attacks second only to Iraq. A New York Times article which summarized a report to the United Nations stated that the number of suicide attacks by the Taliban has risen at an alarming rate from 17 in 2005, to 123 in 2006, and as of August 2007 the number stands at 103. This all points to the increasing strength of the Taliban fed by the movement's increasing strength in the Pakistani tribal regions. A 2006 article in Pakistan's Newsline magazine reported the words of a cleric in charge of a madrassa along Pakistan's border: "There is no dearth of people willing to join the fighting. The fear of American military might has vanished." The sharp increase of Taliban activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to back up this dire claim. That same Newsline article also carried a brief interview of a Taliban fighter by the name of Samiul Haq. Haq claims that the insurgency is receiving support from Pakistan's tribal regions, and disturbingly (but not really surprisingly) private Saudi sources. Haq believes that local Pakistani support is key to the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan. "We cannot fight for long without support from our sympathisers in the local administration," he told Newsline.

The failure of the Karzai government to achieve any real security or economic growth in Afghanistan is the prime cause behind the Taliban's resurgence. The campaign of suicide bombings in Afghanistan did not start until 2003 two years after the fall of the Taliban regime. The US-led coalition and fledgling Afghan army have failed to crush the Taliban insurgency with military might and it appears that it won't succeed anytime soon. A diplomatic solution may be all that is left for Karzai's government. Whether or not this will be just another failed strategy in the region is still up in the air. Karzai appears to want to appeal to Afghani nationalism and to drive a wedge into what he views as a divided organization. Maybe he knows something we don't, or maybe he's desperate. Only time will tell.