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Don't Negotiate Over The Heads Of The Afghan People

Many Afghans are loath to see the return of the Taliban, especially women. Life has never been easy for Afghan women, but it has never been worse for them than it was under the Taliban.
Many Afghans are loath to see the return of the Taliban, especially women. Life has never been easy for Afghan women, but it has never been worse for them than it was under the Taliban.
Everywhere you turn, it seems, someone is talking about talking with the Taliban.

The Europeans have been in favor of the negotiating with the Taliban for years. Now Washington has jumped on the bandwagon.

And it's not just U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently gave a much-noted speech about the impossibility of winning the war in Afghanistan by military means alone. She's supported in that by David Petraeus, who commands U.S. and international forces in the country, and other U.S. generals. The Obama administration recently approved $50 million in support of Afghan government efforts to "reintegrate" the Taliban into society.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has long pushed the cause of "reconciliation" with the insurgents, must be pleased. But what about other Afghans?

Certainly not Malalai Joya. She is a former member of the Afghan parliament whose membership was suspended in 2007 for criticizing the presence of warlords, warlord-supported politicians, and the Taliban in parliament. She accused them all of past human rights abuses.

This is what she had to say about possible negotiations with the Taliban

"What kind of negotiations they are talking about?" she asked during a recent appearance on the U.S. radio and TV news program "Democracy Now." "The people want all those killers to be brought to criminal courts for the war crimes they have committed."

She also took issue with Washington's conciliatory stance towards the Taliban. "The U.S. government tells its own justice-loving people and the rest of the world [that] we are negotiating with a moderate Talib," Joya said. "We have no moderate Talib. How can they recognize whether one terrorist is moderate and another isn't moderate?"

Not Speaking For All Pashtuns

Joya's opinion is significant not only because she represents the younger generation (she was born in Farah Province in 1978). It is also worth listening to because she is a Pashtun.

Malalai Joya would like to see the militants prosecuted for human rights abuses.
Public opinion in the West tends to think of the Taliban as a group that represents the majority views of Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtuns. And the fact that the majority of the Pashtuns in parliament supports negotiations with the militants would seem to support this. But Joya's position shows that it's not that simple.

All figures on the ethnic makeup of Afghans have to be taken with a grain of salt. Most counts agree that the Pashtun, who probably account for a bit less than half of the population, represent a plurality of Afghans. Still, it is extremely hard to tell how many of them support reconciliation with the Taliban and how many think like Joya.

And even if the majority of the country's Pashtuns support the idea of talking with the insurgents, that still leaves many questions unanswered. The reason is that many other ethnic groups have bad memories of Taliban rule.

Tajik Resistance...

The country's second-largest ethnic group is the Tajiks, who make up somewhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of the population. It was the Tajiks who formed the core of the group that resisted the Taliban regime right up until its end in 2001. The Panjshir Valley, a Tajik heartland that was surrounded by the Taliban for years, never gave up.

The Tajiks are highly unlikely to forget the killing of their legendary leader, Ahmad Shah Masud, at the hands of Al-Qaeda terrorists allied with the Taliban in 2001. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri targeted Masud precisely to make life easier for their Taliban allies, who have never expressed a word of regret for the assassination.

"There is no way the Tajiks would sit down with the Taliban," says Ahmad Zia Masud, the brother of the slain Tajik guerilla leader. "It's a grave mistake that the West is supporting these so-called negotiations."

In one of his recent speeches Masud assailed "international efforts" to bring the "weak and corrupt government" of President Karzai "together with a fundamentalist group."

Nor is Masud speaking from the perspective of a resentful outsider. That he served for years as a vice president of Afghanistan in Karzai's own administration gives his views additional weight.

...And Hazara, Uzbek Fears

The Hazaras, Afghanistan's third-largest group, are extremely frightened by the idea of the Taliban returning to the government. This should come as little surprise considering the extent to which they suffered under Taliban rule.

Afghanistan's Tajiks have not fogotten the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masud.
Hazara leaders say some 15,000 of their people were killed by forces loyal to the Taliban regime. On April 7, 2002, UN investigators reported finding evidence of three mass graves near the central Afghan city of Bamiyan. The remains are believed to belong to ethnic Hazaras killed by the Taliban during their last month in power.

The Taliban targeted them out of a combination of traditional disdain for the group, who are regarded by many Afghans as inferior, and contempt for the Shi'ite beliefs held by many Hazaras.

Even now Hazaras recall those events as if they had happened yesterday.

Speaking to Agence France Presse on March 20, Ibrahim, a villager in Bamiyan Province, described one of these events. "The Taliban lined us up in two rows and started shooting us one by one," he said. In another AFP report, Hazara villager Syed Zia described the Taliban organization as "the worst creature on earth."

The Uzbeks, Afghanistan's fourth-largest group, have similar tales to tell. They have fought several brutal wars with Taliban militants, and in 1998 the Taliban killed thousands of them during an advance on the Uzbek-dominated city of Mazar-e Sharif.

To be sure, the Uzbeks responded with comparable brutality once their forces regained the upper hand. In 2001 there were stories of Taliban prisoners massacred by Uzbek commander General Rashid Dostum's men. The prisoners were locked in shipping containers and left to die in the hot desert sun. Controversy over the incident still rages.

More Than Reconciliation Needed

But it is precisely the complexity of this bloody history that makes it unlikely that genuine peace can be achieved without genuine reconciliation. And genuine reconciliation cannot be achieved by fiat. Nor can it be achieved by pretending that all is well, or that everything will be great if everyone simply agrees to move ahead and forget about the past. You can only avoid mistakes in the future by honestly confronting what has happened.

That applies in particular to the women of Afghanistan. It's no secret that, under the Taliban government, women were completely isolated from public life and deprived of basic rights, such as access to education. Contrary to widespread popular belief in the West, this was not the traditional way of doing things in Afghanistan.

Life has never been easy for Afghan women, but it has never been worse for them than it was under the Taliban. The Taliban regime transformed the parts of the country under its control into an open jail for women, a place where female Afghans were periodically brutalized in the name of justice.

So when President Karzai says that his nation supports negotiations with the Taliban, one is entitled to ask: Which nation does he have in mind?

Even if one can claims that the president received a clear mandate from the public during the last election -- a claim undermined by the number of independent assessments that disputed its fairness -- that is still no excuse for depriving the country's ethnic groups of a direct voice in the peace process. The question of power-sharing with the Taliban is far too important to be left to Karzai alone.

A genuine and sustainable peace process must include a formal mechanism to ensure that everyone's concerns are properly addressed. The best forum would be a conference sponsored by the international community -- perhaps one reminiscent of the Bonn Conference in 2001 that brought the interim government to power after the fall of the Taliban.

At the same time, it should be clearly stated that no real reconciliation can take place without a truth-finding process to clarify the nature of crimes against humanity committed both by the Taliban and its opponents during the long years of internal Afghan conflict.

This does not necessarily have to lead to criminal prosecutions. That would undoubtedly complicate the efforts to find a lasting peace in Afghanistan. The experience of post-apartheid South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission offers a fitting example of the sort of process Afghanistan needs. The Karzai government is fond of referring to "reconciliation" but less eager to talk about the "truth" component of the equation. But lasting peace cannot happen without both.

It is understandable that Karzai wants to prove his leadership. It is equally understandable that the international community wants to leave Afghanistan in secure hands when foreign troops are withdrawn.

But the risks are great. By leaving the process up to the Karzai government at the exclusion of the broader concerns of the Afghan people, leaders in the West run the peril of squandering everything that has been achieved at the cost of vast amounts of blood and treasure. Comparable mistakes have been made in Afghanistan in the past, to the detriment of both Afghans and the world. Let's not make them again.

Muhammad Tahir is a Washington correspondent for RFE/RL and former correspondent of the IHA Turkish News Agency in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL