Sunday, February 03, 2008


When I talk with people about Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan, their reaction is pretty consistent. Yup, it's a mess. Yup, maybe we shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place. But the Taliban were pretty nasty when they were in power [Agreed!] particularly in terms of how they treated women [Agreed again!].

Should we withdraw? Probably ... except ...
  • Except we have a reponsibility to the people of Afghanistan.
  • Except if we did, the Taliban would take power again.
  • Except if we did, women's rights would disappear.
  • Except our NATO "partners" would be upset.
  • Except how can reconstruction take place unless order is established?
It's no wonder that with obstacles like these, many Canadians feel quite ambivalent about the idea of withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the real obstacles are in our minds: we are imprisoned by our own assumptions. To list a few: the assumption that we know best; the assumption that the Taliban are the source of all troubles in Afghanistan; the assumption that the solution is more violence.

It is widely accepted that ultimately peace in Afghanistan depends on negotiation rather that violence. For example, the Manley report states:
Eventually, achieving a genuine and stable peace in Afghanistan will necessitate a more thoroughgoing political and social reconciliation among Afghans themselves—citizens who have been divided for generations on differences of tribal, regional and political identity. With time, better governance will involve a negotiated coming-to-terms between the present Afghan political leadership and some adherents of the former Taliban regime who renounce terror and repression and adopt the norms and practices of democracy.
Negotiate with the Taliban? No, not the Taliban, some-adherents-of-the-former-Taliban-regime-who-renounce-terror and-repression-and-adopt-the-norms-and-practices-of-democracy. But, to save space let's just call them ... the Taliban.

When Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, suggested something similar more than a year ago, he was demonized by the right wing and labeled "Taliban Jack".

But rhetorical nonsense aside, the point remains that in the end, negotiation is essential. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that the price of peace was negotiation with unsavoury characters. Refusal to negotiate isn't a badge of moral righteousness, it's a commitment to ceaseless violence.

The Manley report mentions negotiation twice. The first time is in the paragraph excerpted above, in a section on "Governance". The second time is in Appendix 10:
Across the various polls conducted in the last four years, views on the Taliban have remained uniformly negative. In the autumn of 2003, some 75% of Afghans viewed the Taliban unfavourably (62% very unfavourably), 89% felt that way in October 2005 (75% very unfavourably), and 73% in September 2007 (53% very negative). At the same time however, when asked whether President Karzai should enter into negotiations with the Taliban and allow them to participate in the political process, some 60% of Afghans currently believe a negotiated settlement should be pursued.
Though it is not unlikely that some of the survey respondents may have given careful replies, fearing that the "wrong" answer might have undesirable consequences, it seems clear that by in large Afghans are unfavourably disposed to the Taliban. And yet a majority support negotiation. They can't be bothered with righteous moral purity; they just want to live in peace.

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Anonymous TheRandomTexan said...

Some folks don't get interested in negotiations until they've been beat on for a while, be it Taliban, tobacco companies, or the KKK. The problem for the long-suffering Afghanis seems to be that they have no other way to convince the Taliban to negotiate.

7:35 AM, February 07, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

The situation in Afghanistan is complex, with various different groups vying for power and foreign countries exercising direct and indirect influence. On all sides the appetite and incentives for negotiation vary over time and among individuals.

In Canada, the rhetoric has long suggested that "you don't negotiate with these people", meaning the Taliban. With that kind of attitude, it's not hard to understand why negotiation has been hampered.

8:10 AM, February 07, 2008  
Blogger DM said...

I think your points are apt and well put. I wonder, however, whether the failure to see things clearly is a symptom of elite sectors more than the population at large. Just looking at the Globe and Mail's columnists, you'll find few words supporting Canada's withdrawal, though the majority of Canadians oppose the war. And those who do oppose the war on the Globe's pages (McQuaig and Mandel honorably excepted) do so because of its high costs to us, not the inherent immorality.
The public's opposition to the war was pretty consistent even before negative prognostications began to emerge. Sounds more like principled opposition than pragmatic.

8:08 PM, February 10, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

That's an interesting point, and it exposes the potential shortcomings of the anecdotal approach I mentioned ("When I talk with people ..."). The big public opinion polls don't break things down by any kind of occupational, educational, or socioeconomic groupings. They do, however, sometimes have gender breakdowns (here's a shocker: women aren't as keen on war as men are).

Like you, I find it troubling when opposition to the war is solely based on the costs to us. But I think that provides a clue about why war stubbornly refuses to go away: it's so easy to empathize with our own people and to just forget about the "others".

11:39 PM, February 10, 2008  

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