Sunday, November 7, 2010


No, that’s not a photo of ZZ Top promoting a concert tour. These doofuses represented a malicious, misogynist, and medieval regime that would be running to the hills under the crushing weight of U.S. military might after 911. I’m of course talking about the Taliban. You know them, right? The ones who blew up 1,500-year—old Buddhist statues and stoned women in soccer fields? Perhaps we'll shake hands, extend an olive branch, beat our swords into plowshares, and bury the hatchet after nine years of fighting.  The ability to negotiate and compromise with the enemy is a necessary skill set in the world of Realpolitik, but sometimes world leaders and diplomats can go too far.

Hamid Karzai, the corrupt president of Afghanistan with a fashion sense similar to Mobutu’s, is currently undergoing talks with the Taliban, the regime that controlled Afghanistan with an oppressive hand and provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda to coordinate attacks against the United States. He’s been reaching out his hand for years now, promoting a reconciliation process with “moderate” Taliban. Unfortunately, NATO and even Uncle Sam are now obliging Karzai in these efforts through indirect channels. A government-appointed High Peace Council has been currently working on negotiations with members of the ousted regime since January.  Heck, the Taliban Shura, including Mullah Omar, operate with impunity just across the border in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan (Pakistan).

Last week’s The Economist featured a piece entitled “Lunch with the Taliban” that addresses this very issue. Over a meal at a restaurant in Kabul, “mid-level Taliban commanders” made their point of view clear to the correspondent. “Asked about an Islamist acid attack on schoolgirls in Kandahar, one said: ‘What else do they deserve? A good woman needs only Islam, not school.’” The peace initiative would require the Taliban to lay down their arms, embrace the central government, and disassociate itself from terrorists. For their part, Taliban interlocutors are demanding that foreign troops leave Afghan soil. Even if these misogynist dweebs are worthy of peace talks, who’s going to enforce the resolution once NATO and the U.S. have withdrawn? One of the commanders at the dinner table expressed his incredulity: “Under Hamid Karzai, not one murderer has been executed in public! No robbers have had their hands cut off!” Welcome to the wonderful dystopian world of the Taliban!

When the Taliban takes control of an area, sadistic evil usually ensues. Doug Stanton in his book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan (2009) describes the Taliban’s handiwork in a northern city:
After three years of Taliban, there were old men in Mazar with stumps for hands. There were women who’d been routinely stoned and kicked on street corners. Young men who’d been imprisoned for not wearing beards. Fathers who’d been beaten in front of their sons for the apparent pleasure of those swinging their weapons.
We want to compromise with these people? I should think not.  Listen, as a student of history, especially the history of war and genocide, I'm well aware that combatants in a conflict, the United States included, always demonize or dehumanize their enemy.  But even the amoral peaceniks in our midst must admit that these men in black beards and turbans are brutes of the worst kind.

I understand the reasons for getting out of Afghanistan. They’re valid, and perhaps you are of this disposition. But I think President Bush hit the nail on the head in a recent interview he gave in promotion of his new book. The interviewer asked him if he was optimistic about Afghanistan. I can’t remember his exact response to this question, but he said he would not be optimistic if we withdrew. I share this sentiment. The Taliban would slither back into power and Al Qaeda would have free reign to plot a new 911. I personally can’t have this on my conscience. True enough, tough issues like this create moral dilemmas, because those of us who support the war must inevitably ask ourselves whether more dead American and NATO troops, not to mention Afghan civilians, is worth it. Would that the problems of the world had simple solutions!

What we need is not merely more boots on the ground from our NATO partners, but a concerted effort to understand and work within the context of tribal dynamics, especially the Pashtuns who, as stated above, make up the ethnic constituency of the Taliban. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. Well, so is counterinsurgency. Seth G. Jones, author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (2009), puts it succinctly: “The United States must beat the Taliban at the local level.” A case in point is Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, which is devoted to the education of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organization’s charter requires members to have village elders convene a jirga to discuss the possibility of a girls’ school in their region. Consulting the tribal elders is a way of bypassing the regional warlords and adapting to Pashtunwali, a code that promotes respect for elders.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Kolenda, commander of Task Force Saber, which was responsible for tracking down bad guys in Kunar Province a few years ago, provides a model of how our military can deal with violence. As Mortenson recounts in his second book, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace through Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009), when the Task Force’s outpost received rocket fire, Kolenda arranged for a jirga with village elders to discuss their grievances. At this meeting the Pashtun leaders expressed the need for education. Ultimately the Army contacted the Central Asia Institute and coordinated efforts with locals to found a school.  Mortenson writes that Kolenda and his men “had a grasp of the complex network of kinship ties, blood feuds, economic disputes, and ethnic rivalries that shaped every aspect of life in the rural communities of the surrounding region.”  We will never win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people without an earnest attempt to understand the culture, as LTC Kolenda has demonstrated.

Such efforts are not without great risks.  Once soldiers and relief workers venture beyond the wire, they're subject to IEDs and ambushes.  Pashtunwali's emphasis on hospitality and protection of a guest notwithstanding, who's to say that thugs would not cut down Kolenda's men as they're sitting down for a cup of tea with village elders?  Unfortunately, the only way forward involves these kinds of risks.  I think about the freedom and independence that my girls have.  I would inflict no small amount of pain on anyone who would inhibit their freedom, and perhaps kill them too and thereby risk imprisonment.  I also think of the girls whom Greg Mortenson and his team have helped educate.  Let's not compromise their future.