Coming almost exactly seven years after the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates did something this weekend you think would have happened long ago: He acknowledged the possibility of talks with Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.
Given that attacks have increased by 40 percent over the previous year, and that this war has already swallowed around $200 billion (excluding costs to our NATO allies) without accomplishing its main objectives, this change would seem like a wise, albeit belated, change that will be in the best interests of the terrorism-wary West and Afghanistan.
To begin with, what exactly are we supporting by maintaining the current government?
Answering this question requires a brief look back to 2001, when the Taliban had unified approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan. Following Sept. 11, we turned to the remaining 10 percent, a collection of warlords and tribal chiefs on the verge of defeat, to help us unseat the Taliban. This group, the Northern Alliance, succeeded because of U.S. support, and has since required constant financial and military backing just to maintain its hold on the largest cities and main roads. Even then, it has failed to provide most basic services, including general security.
Coincidentally, the one area in which this government has excelled is the enrichment of its members. Under the Taliban, corruption was rare. But the current government is turning out millionaires, and the damage from this corruption and the associated drug trade is not just limited to Afghanistan.
The Taliban outlawed opium production during its years in power, but since its departure each passing year has brought another bumper opium crop. Afghanistan’s poppies now produce roughly 90 percent of the world’s heroin, and members of the current government are cashing in. The ex-governor of Kandahar Province admitted to receiving $1 million a week in kickbacks. (After being removed, the United States gave him control of another province.) And a recent New York Times article implicates the brother of President Hamid Karzai in the opium trade.
The Taliban was not nearly as corrupt, but how would a greater future role for the group affect the Afghan people? The Taliban is famous for its alleged disregard for the rights of women, homosexuals and minorities, but that’s not the complete picture. Sure, gay people were persecuted in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but in traditional Afghan society (particularly among ethnic Pashtuns), do you really think the absence of the Taliban would have changed that?
Some people may also remember a widely circulated video of a burqa-clad woman being executed in a soccer stadium. This was passed on as evidence of Taliban brutality, and more broadly its disregard for women’s rights. It was grotesque, but a closer look tells a different story. The woman was tried and convicted of murdering her husband. An eyewitness told the Associated Press that, “This is the first time a woman has been killed.” And if you look at the executioners, you will notice that some are women. Female police officers, in the employment of the Taliban. Who would have thought?
This is not to say that the Taliban is good, but it is better than the weak U.S.-backed Karzai government. Practically speaking, the progressive Afghanistan died with the 1979 Soviet invasion. Since then there has just been war — first against the Soviets, then among themselves, followed by a brief hiatus during the Taliban years, and then again after 2001. If nothing else, the Taliban offers relative stability — fulfilling a basic function that the Karzai government hasn’t. Despite the Taliban’s faults, it creates a starting point for future progress and reform.
And there is one last looming question about the Taliban: What about its ties to Al-Qaeda, the reason for its ouster in the first place? Following the 2001 Tora Bora campaign, the majority of foreign Al-Qaeda fighters left Afghanistan for Pakistan and elsewhere. Attacks over the last couple years have mainly been the work of Afghan Taliban — and they are willing to negotiate, potentially reducing the financial and human costs to the United States. Over the last few months, however, reports indicate that increasing numbers of foreign fighters are moving to Afghanistan, as opposed to Iraq. American troops attract foreign Al-Qaeda fighters like ants to sugar. If an agreement is not reached with the Taliban soon, this trend will only continue and possibly lead to a rebirth of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, along with the associated violence.
The United States and NATO have already spent many lives and hundreds of billions of dollars trying to help the Karzai government stand on its feet. In seven years it has failed to accomplish much of anything, except create a healthy drug trade. Forget what you may have read in “The Kite Runner.” Maybe it’s time to rethink our commitments.
Ibrahim Kakwan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.