Outside View: Time to talk to the Taliban

By PYOTR GONCHAROV, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Nov. 28, 2008 at 8:00 AM
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MOSCOW, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- The Soviet Union fought in Afghanistan from December 1979 until February 1989. Right now, U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan are developing interesting similarities with the scenario and timeframe of the Soviet operation there.

In 1986 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced Moscow's decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Gorbachev's statement came seven years after the Soviet Union deployed its troops in the country. Soviet leaders officially said it was impossible to solve the Afghan problem solely by using military force.

Although Moscow's decision to pull out of Afghanistan shocked many people, the Afghan leader, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, and his government quickly recovered and proclaimed a "national reconciliation" policy -- convening a Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, that was originally attended only by Pashtun tribes but later included other ethnic groups. He also called on armed opposition groups to negotiate.

History tends to repeat itself. The U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition, which also includes Russia, has been fighting in Afghanistan since October 2001. The International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led security and development mission in Afghanistan, was established by the U.N. Security Council in December 2001.

Although a troop withdrawal is still out of the question, the parties concerned have already started talking about the need to negotiate with the Afghan opposition.

On Nov. 16 Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Taliban leaders to take part in talks aimed at national reconciliation. He guaranteed the safety of Mullah Omar -- the Taliban leader with a multimillion-dollar U.S. bounty on his head thought to be hiding in Pakistan -- if he returns to Afghanistan or conducts peace talks.

His call was also addressed to the international community supporting the struggle against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

He said the international community should either oust him or not interfere with his actions, even if it opposed his plan.

NATO is so far the only international organization to support Karzai's move. If Karzai and the government of Afghanistan make this choice, then we will support it, NATO spokesman James Appaturay said.

NATO believes there is no purely military solution to this problem, Appaturay said.

It appears that all 40 nations that have contributed troop contingents to ISAF share this position.

Russia, the only country to oppose the proposed talks, was indirectly supported by Washington.

U.S. Ambassador George A. Krol, deputy assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, said the talks could get under way only if the Taliban lay down their weapons, return to civilian life, renounce all ties with al-Qaida, acknowledge the primacy of the Afghan Constitution and president, and recognize the U.S. government as their partner.

In reality, however, these demands resemble the terms of a surrender, rather than conditions for future talks.

The United States should admit that it missed an excellent chance to convert Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name used by the U.S. government for its contribution to the war in Afghanistan, into a peace-enforcement operation. Washington should have done this right after the creation of the interim Afghan administration in Kabul. A peace-enforcement operation should have been conducted on the initiative of that administration and should have also stipulated talks with the Taliban.

That opportunity was missed, however, and the Taliban have now seized the initiative. Naturally, the Taliban turned down Karzai's offer and said there could be no talk of a cease-fire agreement until foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

The Taliban also noted Washington's obvious tactical mistake and inquired why Karzai didn't think about negotiations in 2001.

Although the Afghan leader pondered and repeatedly noted the need for such dialogue, his stand had many opponents both inside Afghanistan and among the international community.

It turns out Karzai was right after all. But the Taliban is unlikely to negotiate on Washington's terms.

There will be no need for peace talks if the Taliban lay down their weapons, return to civilian life, renounce all ties with Al-Qaida, acknowledge the primacy of the Afghan Constitution and president, and recognize the U.S. government as their partner.

Still, this seems unlikely because the Taliban has seized military initiative and because any local peace talks should be preceded by a cease-fire. The current situation is no exception either.

Najibullah was a skilled politician who knew the feelings of ordinary Afghans. By proclaiming a national reconciliation policy and calling on the armed opposition to negotiate, he retained political initiative and won people's sympathies. He also got rid of state symbols that irritated the Afghan population and initiated a cease-fire agreement.

Right now, the traditionally influential ulema (experts on Islamic law) and the Muslim clergy of the western Afghan provinces support the idea of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban but do not want to hold talks with foreign members of the Taliban movement.

The national reconciliation program launched by Najibullah is appropriate in the present-day context. Most importantly, the international community should not hinder the efforts of Karzai and the Afghan nation to negotiate with the Taliban because no one else knows this problem better.

No matter what we say about the allegedly pointless talks and a flawed cease-fire agreement with the Taliban, this choice belongs to the people of Afghanistan and nobody else.

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(Pyotr Goncharov is a foreign news commentator for RIA Novosti, which first published a version if this article. The opinions expressed in it are the author's alone.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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