Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Negotiations: supporters and opponents

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai affirmed the right of rival parliamentarians from the United National Front (UNF) to hold negotiations with Taliban insurgents. While the Karzai government has been holding talks with insurgents for several years, the UNF has reportedly been speaking with them since last year. In response, a Taliban spokesperson denied that the group had ever had talks with the government or the UNF.

Other Afghan leaders are also adding their voices to the growing calls for a negotiated settlement. Recently representatives of a peace jirga based in eastern Afghanistan and comprised of governors and tribal leaders visited Karzai in Kabul to impress upon him their wish to see talks with insurgents. Similarly, leaders of the main Kandahari tribes recently drew up a manifesto which reportedly labeled NATO troops "occupying forces" and called for comprehensive negotiations.
Meanwhile, efforts toward negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban begun by newly-elected governments on the other side of the Durand line have proceeded quite far under the initiative of ethnic Pashtun socialists the Awami National Party. The ANP's Haider Khan Hoti, Chief Minister of Northwest Frontier Province, recently affirmed that party's commitment to a peace process:

We are convinced that there is no military solution to the complex issues and challenges vis-à-vis peace and security intensified over the years due to flawed policies. We are therefore, essentially looking for political solutions for dealing with these issues and challenges we are all faced with. Our stance on politically negotiated settlement of the issues has received an overwhelming support by the people and we are committed to our promise to the people. ... (pdf link)
This approach is in line with the thinking of humanitarian agencies. A recent conference report from officials of various international NGO's, including a pair of highly respected Afghan women, noted civil society support for negotiations with Taliban insurgents and called for a comprehensive peace process.

Other outsiders have joined the call. German Social Democrat Party leader Kurt Beck has, like NDP leader Layton, been targeted with vicious criticism for his suggestion of talks to end the conflict. Conservative German reactions to Beck's suggestion are especially revealing when one considers that German intelligence agents held secret talks with Taliban insurgents back in 2005. Canadian Archbishop James Weisgerber, responding to popular pressure, recently affirmed his support for negotiations too.

Of course, there are some rather powerful forces which oppose efforts toward peace talks - chief among them the Bush administration. It seems that Bush has not backed off on his opposition to negotiations with the Taliban, expressed very early in the war: "When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations," he told the press in October 2001. Indeed, American resistance to dialogue has been a consistent feature of the occupation of Afghanistan since that time.

Also joining the fight against parleys has been the Harper government, a loyal ally of the Bush administration. And while the British Labour government has risked the ire of the US in its vigorous pursuit of talks with insurgents (while simultaneously proclaiming its opposition to talks), the British Conservative opposition's defense critic has objected to the policy. "We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops," insisted Liam Fox. These conservative voices, though rather extreme in their rejections, are not without their vocal backers.

Enter the advocacy group called Canada-Afghan Solidarity Committee (CASC), which is perhaps best described as the West coast's answer to Canadians for Afghanistan. While both groups were founded in December and have similar aims and perspectives, the latter is largely the work of a Conservative Party functionary turned lobbyist and the former is chiefly a vehicle for two B.C. writers known to grab attention with heated right-wing rhetoric.
CASC professes a sincere commitment to the wishes of Afghans, as expressed in their web page devoted to "Our Principles":
We recognize that human rights are universal, and not culture-specific, and we are listening to the demands of Afghans for human rights, the protection of women’s fledgling rights, and the desire for a democratic system of governance. ... (link)
Their principles also urge everyone to "pay attention to Afghan public opinion". However, CASC founding member Terry Glavin reveals just how hollow such claims are when he rather proudly asserts the group's opposition to negotiations toward a settlement:
You might not find much support for the "negotiated solution" bit - especially from the women among the membership; I can't see anything to negotiate with the Taliban except their surrender. (link)
This pose is quite remarkable. Not only does such an assertion ignore the banal fact that nearly all military conflicts end in negotiations, it plainly dismisses the wishes of the Afghan population.* In a recent public opinion poll commissioned in part by the BBC, a majority of Afghans expressed support for negotiations with Taliban insurgents. In particular, respondents in Kandahar province were 88% in favour of negotiations.

Lauryn Oates, a founding member of CASC, is nonetheless vehement in opposing negotiations. An Op-Ed penned for the Globe and Mail attempts to counter calls for sitting down with elements of the Taliban:
Don't share a table with Taliban
Lauryn Oates
Globe and Mail - Nov 3, 2006

Afghanistan is spiralling into further chaos as donor governments, which have poured millions into the country, are scratching their heads in bewilderment. Some critics have called for alternative responses to the conflict that has taken the lives of more than 40 Canadian soldiers. One of the propositions gaining traction is the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, bringing them to the table for peace talks and giving them a place in the country's fledgling government. ...

Opting for negotiating with the Taliban at this stage shows an incredible lack of creativity when thinking about how to approach peace-building in Afghanistan. It is also hypocrisy of the worst kind. ...

Allowing the Taliban to have any role in the governance of Afghanistan is a victory to the forces that brought Afghanistan to its knees in the first place. ... (link)

Nowhere in the piece does Oates even pay lip service to the old-fashioned notion that "[a]llowing the Taliban to have any role" is a decision that Afghans should make, not Oates or her audience.

More recently, Oates reiterated her aversion to negotiations in remarks to Inter Press Service reporter Paul Weinberg. Yet she couldn't resist insulting those calling for talks:
[Lauryn Oates] told IPS she parts company with peace advocates who are pushing for talks with the Taliban. "No one is talking about talking to ordinary Afghan civilians. This is a small group of so-called experts in Canada that is just sort of deciding among themselves what should happen in Afghanistan," she said. ... (link)
Oates' pretension has a practical purpose, as it allows her to ignore the wishes of Afghans when their dreams don't match her desires. She is hardly alone in her ability to not hear about Afghan opinion; no major Canadian newspapers reported the results of the poll cited above, where Afghans generally favoured negotiations. But, if those Afghan majority voices ever get a hearing in our media, perhaps Oates will be given space to berate them for their "hypocrisy of the worst kind".

The depth of Oates' commitment to democracy is on display in her recent Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail entitled, rather ironically, "We must put the Afghans first":
If we do not urgently refocus our debate and put the needs and interests of Afghans at the heart of our discussions, we will leave a bleak smear in the Canadian history of international interventionism, a smear that will bring us shame in the history books our children will read. We must ensure that we are finding constructive solutions to the underlying problems plaguing Afghanistan and to the issues that Afghans point to as priorities, and not merely to our own insular interests. ... (link)
For Oates, the "needs and interests of Afghans" don't include their actual, stated desires.

Returning to the CASC group generally, it is worth noting that their hostility to democracy, as evidenced above, extends deeper than ignoring Afghans, for Canadians are just as easily dismissed. A poll taken last year found that some 62% of Canadians are in favour of negotiations with Taliban insurgents in order to end the conflict. Of course, the depth of their contempt for the public is apparent in the group's basic motivation: to counter those who wish to bring Canadian policy in line with the wishes of its citizens. When polled, a consistent majority of Canadians say they oppose the war; yet CASC will have none of it.
* Elsewhere, Glavin demonstrates the wisdom of the saying a little knowledge is a dangerous thing when he harangues fellow B.C.-based columnist (and long-time friend) Bill Tieleman over their differences on Afghanistan. Writing in response to Tieleman's good faith attempts at dialogue, he endeavors to educate Tieleman, advising him that "by the way, it's not 'Afghani people'; an Afghani is a unit of currency". Perhaps Glavin's internet connection was down when he wrote that, as a very simple Google search finds a dictionary entry from the American Heritage Dictionary where "Afghani" is defined in part as "A native or inhabitant of Afghanistan; an Afghan." (Also see, for example, this article from the Times of India website which profiles "Afghani director" Atiq Rahimi.) After the requisite mea culpas one would hope that the friendship can be salvaged.

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