Running out of options in Afghanistan

What do a former Taliban minister, the ex-head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), and a former CIA

    What do a former Taliban minister, the ex-head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI), and a former CIA agent all have in common?

    The answer is not much, apart from their shared belief that the US-led mission in Afghanistan is on the wrong track and risks total failure if Washington’s strategy does not change.

    Speaking at the Al Jazeera Forum in Doha this week, the eclectic group of panellists offered their assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.

    A rising tide of violence against foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan and those who work with them has convinced Robert Grenier, the ex-CIA agent, that the country is moving towards a bleak future.

    If trends continue as they are, I see a future for Afghanistan that is not very attractive. I see a situation in which no-one wins, a situation which is bad for everyone.

    Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, is even more pessimistic about the Western project in Afghanistan he thinks that the war has already been lost and the only options available to the coalition lie in how best to withdraw from the country.

    America wants to impose its will on Afghanistan and Pakistan. But losers cannot be choosers. Let me go back to words said by Tony Blair in Helmand, as he stood on the banks of the Helmand river- “The destiny of the world is going to be decided in the parched plains of Helmand”… That destiny has now been decided. The Americans have lost the war. Their choice is whether to leave gracefully, or cut and run like they did in Vietnam.”

    Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, an ex-foreign minister in the former Taliban government, agrees that the coalition's current approach is not working. “The war is becoming worse every day,” he says.

    The three men also agree that the only way to bring peace to the country is to engage the Taliban in the political process- and that means talking to people previously dismissed as "terrorists" by Western leaders.

    Robert Grenier says that there is a growing awareness that this approach has failed.

    There is a recognition in Washington by both civilians and the military that if there is a settlement, the Taliban will have to play a role… Momentum is building for some sort of political reconciliation that involves the leaders of the insurgency.

    Some of that momentum has gone into plans to do business with “moderate” elements of the Taliban who have renounced violence, while marginalising more hardline members of the group. But Muttawakil says that this strategy is doomed to failure.

    “There is only one Taliban…they have to talk to the right people. We should not think about dividing the Taliban. They have to talk to the leaders of the Taliban."

    Oliver McTernan, the director of the peace-building initiative Forward Thinking who also sat on the panel, warned the dividing the Taliban into "moderates and hardliners" could be counter-productive and said that talks should begin immediately.

    Muttawakil says that it is the American presence in Afghanistan that the Taliban are fighting, not America itself.

    I would like to point to the fact the agenda of the Taliban has only a national agenda. It is not an international agenda.

    This is a key point. The Taliban are not al-Qaeda, although much of the American public see them as one and the same. Their aims lie within the borders of Pashtun lands, not on the streets of the Western cities that al-Qaeda has attacked.

    "You have got to take away the label of terrorists. They are freedom fighters fighting for their country and fighting for faith,” says Hamid Gul.

    The panellists may come at the issue from very different perspectives, but the fact they have broadly reached the same conclusion- that the Taliban have a political role to play in bringing peace to the country - should serve as a stark warning to policy makers currently seeking to secure peace in Afghanistan with guns alone.


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