Notes From the Margins…

Talking to Terrorists…Again

  • June 21, 2013
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In the same week that the Obama administration took another step towards another Middle Eastern ‘quagmire’, the US government quietly announced that it would begin negotiations with the Taliban.     Well sort of.    One senior US official was at pains to emphasize that these negotiations are likely to be ‘long, complex and messy’, and might even fail.

And yesterday the US/NATO crony Karzai, clearly sensing that he is likely to be marginalized or even cast aside, has said that he doesn’t support negotiations or the establishment of what appears to be a Taliban government-in-exile in Doha.

So now the negotiations have been cancelled or at least placed on hold.   But none of that changes the fact that the United States has initiated a process of dialogue with a ‘terrorist’ enemy that was until last week was the antithesis of civilisation, a deadly existential threat to the West etc, etc.     After more than a decade of war intended to prevent ‘another 9/11’   the US has not even insisted that the Taliban sever its links with al-Qaeda as a precondition.

These linkages were always more of a tenuous marriage-of-convenience at best,    as Alex Strick van Linschoten and Feliz Kuehn make clear in their meticulous analysis of the Taliban/al Qaeda nexus An Enemy We Created.   In 2001 the US insisted that the Taliban and al Qaeda were joined at the hip ideologically and even organizationally, yet even after the 9/11 attacks there was evidence to suggest otherwise.

There was always a difference between the Taliban’s religious nationalism and Osama bin Laden’s vision of a global Islamist insurgency driven by terrorist spectaculars,   but these nuances were forgotten as the Bush administration rushed into a ‘nation-building’ war and occupation that has so far cost between 12,000 and 15,000 civilian deaths and nearly 15,000 casualties amongst the Coalition and Afghan Security Forces.

All this to create a corrupt narco-state made up of former warlords and Karzai carpetbaggers propped up by CIA and M16 ‘ghost money’ and foreign aid, where unemployment stands at 40 percent that has led many Afghans to turn back to the Taliban/Haqqani network or simply flee their country altogether.

In the early years of the war/insurgency we often heard that the Taliban were primitive fanatics who wanted to create a global caliphate, and facilitate more terrorist attacks on the West.

Such an enemy was immune to negotiation.    More recently, the Coalition governments – and Karzai himself – have advocated some form of ‘talking with the Taliban’ – partly because they hoped to foment factional divisions amongst the insurgents, and partly because it has dawned on NATO that it cannot defeat them.     The US in particular, will struggle even to get much of its military equipment out of Afghanistan unless the Taliban let them.

Now Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan with some semblance of dignity, and perhaps hopes to persuade the Taliban to allow it to retain some military bases after the imminent US withdrawal.  So the Taliban have now joined Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins, the IRA, Yasser Arafat, Jomo Kenyatta, the ‘Ba’athist dead-enders’ of Iraq who joined the ‘Sunni Awakening’   and many other individuals and organizations who have begun   the transformation from ‘terrorists’ into politicians, governments, and statesmen.

Within the grim panorama of Afghan politics, this is a positive development, even though it has no guarantee of a positive outcome.     It’s not that the Taliban are anything to admire, but an organization that effectively controls at least 10 percent of the country can’t be ignored.

And they are Afghans, something that can’t be said of the occupying forces who have tried – and failed – to remake Afghanistan according to their own priorities.   If NATO is going to leave a country that it should never have occupied in the first – and it will leave –   then it would be an absolute disaster if Afghanistan were to slip back into the vicious civil wars that completely unraveled the country during the 1990s.

As strong as the Taliban are, it’s difficult to believe that they can overthrow Karzai, even when NATO leaves, but they could continue to fight for a long long time.

For that to be avoided, negotiation and reconciliation between all the political protagonists are essential.

That process should have begun a long time ago, and let’s hope that it hasn’t begun too late, and it helps to put an end to another useless war that should never have begun.


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  1. alrightjim

    25th Jun 2013 - 2:02 pm

    Hi Matt. I assume you are the same matthew carr who wrote a book on terrorism called Unknown Soldiers. You certainly sound like the same guy. I’m guessing Infernal Machine is a rebranding of the same book?

    Either way I read it several years ago and would just like to say that it was a profoundly eye opening experience.

    • Matt

      25th Jun 2013 - 2:27 pm

      Thanks! It is indeed the same book. Unknown Soldiers was sued in this country, and temporarily taken off the market unfortunately, before it went into paperback. ‘Infernal’ was the re-vamped version.

      • alrightjim

        25th Jun 2013 - 3:53 pm

        I had no idea it was sued. Talk about Orwellian. Well I suppose that’s the danger of trying to portray “Terrorists” as anything other than saturday morning cartoon baddies.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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