An Afghan U-turn

You’d have thought that after two centuries of defeat in negotiations (and wars) with Afghanistan, Britain would have learned its lesson, but no. Here we go again: the Great Game strategy of divide and rule, paying off leaders and patronising the population, is now official western government policy.

The new strategy reeks of hypocrisy: we plan to set up a $500m fund to bribe pay Taliban fighters to switch sides, Gordon Brown said today (Germany calls it a “Taliban cash-for-clunkers” programme). At the same time, western governments are bemoaning the widespread bribery in Afghanistan.

Clearly there is now a massive incentive for moderates to switch to the Taliban, so they can switch back and claim some of the bribe cash.

American soldier: “Hands up anyone who’s in the Taliban. No takers? That’s a shame, I’ve got $500m to share out. Oh, you all are? Great.”

Furthermore, the approach is likely to confuse western voters already upset about the hundreds of lives lost and billions of dollars spent to maintain a war against the Taliban. Compare and contrast the payments policy, and news that Taliban could be given political positions, with what voters have been told:

Barack Obama, from his speech just over a month ago, described the Taliban (accurately) as “a ruthless, repressive and radical movement”

Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

Even yesterday, he used his state of the union speech to promise to “support the rights of all Afghans – men and women alike”. How is that compatible with giving political positions to Taliban extremists who want to repress (to put it mildly) women and force all men to grow beards? Just insisting that they renounce such policies isn’t going to change their religious views – particularly when Saudi Arabia, not known for its religious tolerance, is involved.

Anyway, here’s Hamid Karzai, today:

We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al-Qaeda, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution. We will establish a national council for peace and reconciliation and reintegration, followed by a peace jirga in Afghanistan.

Nato’s Mark Sedwill seems to have hit the nail on the head, in the same Reuters story:

But Mark Sedwill, newly appointed NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, suggested some hard choices would have to be made about whom to involve in talks.

“If we are going to bring conflicts like Afghanistan, civil conflicts, to an end, that means some pretty unsavory characters have to be brought within the system,” he said.

The White House seems to have drawn the line at Mullah Omar, but everyone else seems to be available for government jobs and western money – as long as the Taliban renounce some of their more unsavoury policies, particularly on women.

(It is worth mentioning that the last time the west started to talk to the Taliban, those leading the talks – allegedly, since at least one of them denied it – were promptly thrown out of the country by the very government now planning to talk to the Taliban. Michael Semple, one of those thrown out, argued last year that the fraud at the last election would leave Karzai too weak to negotiate properly with the Taliban.)

To be fair, a similar approach of paying off relatively moderate fighters seems to have (mostly) succeeded in Iraq. But Iraq’s government is working far better than Afghanistan’s, and Iraq is a far more developed country, with less extreme (although still conflicting) religious groups.

The Taliban clearly have plenty of support on the ground; as long as that remains, they can maintain their attacks indefinitely. So talking to them makes sense. But it seems vastly over-optimistic to assume that bribing some of their fighters to switch sides will solve the problem without giving their leaders genuine political power. If they fail to bring in at least some of their (vile) policies, the leaders are bound to return to the fight.

It may be that to secure peace, the Taliban have to be given a Pashtu statelet in a devolved country. But we shouldn’t imagine that putting a Taliban minister in the government or paying off fighters will solve the problem if laws are not changed to adopt at least part of their extremely nasty approach to women (not to mention banning kites, the country’s national pastime). If the west is about to hold its nose and deal with these people, it needs to prepare the western public for a gigantic U-turn on democracy and human rights.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

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