It is hard to imagine that before the 1979 Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was a country where many ethnic groups and tribes lived in harmony with their neighbours. They had a subsistence economy and a central government. Unlike today there was no sign of extremist inspired suicide bombings or a heroin based economy. It took thirty years of military occupation by foreign armies to bring that about. No one has ever bothered much to consult the Afghan people in a respectful way and decisions on their future have largely been made by powerful outsiders for their own strategic interests.
Against this backdrop we now have high level NATO officials acknowledging their military failures and trumpeting a new strategy that will finally allow an Afghan led and negotiated peace process which will even include the Taliban. Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald E Neumann has said that foreign forces and their Afghan partners will not be able to achieve a military victory. Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary has described the Taliban as part of Afghanistan’s ‘political fabric’. Afghan President, Hamid Karzai stated, “We must engage in negotiations, bring back those Taliban who are willing to return, who have been driven out by fear and coercion and the mistakes we’ve all made. They are part of this country and must be called back...”
The senior NATO Commander, US General McChrystal believes that a political solution to all conflicts is not only the right outcome but an inevitable one. In his Commander’s Assessment report dated August 30, 2009, available online and well worth a read, he notes that the focus must be on “obtaining a greater understanding of the social and political dynamics in all regions, building relationships and protecting civilians.”
What I find most hopeful is that Greg Mortenson and his book Three Cups of Tea has been influencing US military commanders to engage with the people and show more respect for Afghanistan’s religion, culture and traditions. Mortenson has been facilitating meetings between US General McChrystal the top NATO Commander and the influential Shura, who are telling him that what they need is more ‘brainpower’ and less ‘firepower’. They say the bombings that are killing civilians must stop and to come to them (Shura) to take care of militants who are giving them a problem. They say they are most grateful for the trainer troops that have been sent to help the people and would like to see more of that.
It is certain that even with a negotiated process it will be a long road to sustained peace. However, I am convinced that getting all players together to engage in a dialogue has to be a more hopeful way to achieve an end to this conflict than endlessly repeating the failures of the past.
In 2006, when NDP Leader Jack Layton called for negotiations with the Taliban he was ridiculed by the Conservative government and accused of not supporting our troops. Two years later however, Defense Minister Peter McKay was saying Canada would support talks between the Afghan government and Taliban elements that renounced violence but then took no action to move that forward.
As a Canadian I am disappointed that our government has not seized the opportunity to take the lead in promoting a peaceful settlement. Our troops have done an admirable job under very difficult circumstances and have disproportionally suffered heavy casualties. Because of our experience in Afghanistan Canada has a golden opportunity to move the peace process forward.
Our Prime Minister took the lead on the Haiti earthquake disaster by convening a meeting of key foreign ministers. Let’s see him do the same for the people of Afghanistan.