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Dialogue with the Taliban?


By Q+A producer Tim Watkin

Published: 1:14PM Wednesday April 28, 2010 Source: Q+A

In May 2008, then-President George W Bush stood before the Israeli Knesset and said, "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."

Barack Obama, then in the midst of the presidential campaign, took the line as a "political attack" on him and insisted he had "never supported engagement with terrorists". Turns out Bush was right, however, as last year Obama announced that despite the "complex" issues at play in Afghanistan, he was open to opportunities for dialogue with the Taliban.

Obama's controversial suggested new strategy set off plenty of debate and derision of the "we never negotiate with terrorists" variety, which continues today. So it was intriguing to learn this past weekend that New Zealand's own military boss was firmly in the Obama camp.

Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae told Q+A on Anzac Day that he wanted the international forces in Afghanistan to negotiate with the Taliban.

"To my mind, speaking to the Taliban is important, I think it's part of the reconciliation process that is necessary and indeed, you know, absolutely required n Afghanistan."

If the New Zealand media paid any attention to significant world affairs and, you know, wars that we're fighting now as opposed to the wars that were won and lost in previous generations, that comment would have been on every front page on Monday morning. Alas, it's at risk of disappearing without prompting any public discussion, lost in the mist of remembrance that hangs around Anzac Day.

The best I can do is to have a bit of an argument with myself and see whether you want to join in.

Obama attributed his plan to negotiate with "moderate" Taliban members to General David Petraeus, whose negotiations with Sunni insurgents in Iraq were accredited with helping stem the bloodshed in that country.

On one hand, it's a no-brainer. Nigh on every war must eventually end with negotiations; the only alternatives are slaughter or abject surrender, which are either highly undesirable or highly unlikely. Negotiations were eventually successful in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland, for example. And in a country such as Afghanistan, where the Taliban will remain long after international troops have gone home, well, they have to come into the tent at some point, don't they?

The US will start withdrawing its troops in 15 months, and countries such as New Zealand will soon follow. How do we avoid that country tearing itself apart again unless some things are agreed while the military pressure remains?

On the other hand, Mateparae's statement prompts any number of other questions; some of those "complex" issues that Barack Obama was talking about.

If the Lieutenant General believes in negotiation, why then later in the interview does he insist that the war in Afghanistan is "winnable" and that "it's a matter of holding the course"?

Are we risking the lives of Kiwi troops when fighting is futile and talking is the only way forward? As Therese Arseneau said in Q+A's panel , surely one of the principle lessons we should take from the misery of Gallipoli is that if we're going to risk New Zealand lives, it must not be for a futile cause .

Or is it the talking that's futile? A former Taliban military leader, Gholam Mohammad, said earlier this month that talks are a waste of time because no-one wants to concede anything:

"As far as I am concerned, there is a big difference between the government and the Taliban's goals and neither wants to change."

What's more, who would Mateparae have his NATO commanders negotiate with? Taliban leader Mullah Omar? The Americans have ruled that out. Moderates, then? Well who are they, do they have any power and do they even really exist?

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman responded to Obama's overtures last year, saying:

"All the fighters follow and obey orders of one central command. The existence of moderates and extremist elements within the rank and file of Taliban is wishful thinking of the West and the Afghan government."

If talks were arranged, what would Mateparae be willing to sacrifice for some sort of peace? Are we willing to pay insurgents to lay down their weapons? Should former Taliban leaders have a role in government? And those are the easier questions.

Britain's Sunday Times ran a story two Sundays ago quoting senior Islamic scholars in Afghanistan, saying that Omar is prepared to engage in "sincere and honest" talks and that he no longer wants political power in Afghanistan. Which sounds encouraging. Except that the scholars go on to say what they do want:

"At a meeting held at night deep inside Taliban-controlled territory, the Taliban leaders told this newspaper that their military campaign had only three objectives: the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners and the restoration of security."

Is that that sharia law that says wives must always be sexually available to their husbands and denies girls an education? Wasn't ridding Afghanistan of such laws one of the reasons for invading the country in the first place?

None of this should rule out the possibility of peace talks. But they are the sort of questions New Zealand should be debating if we're really worried about our troops in Afghanistan, about the job they're there to do and about their legacy when they finally come home.

Or do we simply prefer to dwell on wars gone-by and past sacrifices?

Tim Watkin is a producer for Q+A on Sundays at 9am on TV ONE. Read more of his blogs here .