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Could deal with Taliban fighters end war?

By Tamim Ansary, Special to CNN
  • Afghan, world leaders discuss possibility of deal with at least some Taliban fighters
  • Tamim Ansary says it's a risky move but might help bring end to war
  • He says lower ranks of insurgency might be tempted by money
  • He says offers to the leaders of the Taliban would be counterproductive

Editor's note: Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-born American writer, is the author of "Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes" and "The Widow's Husband."

"Re-integrating the Taliban."

Could that be a way to end the war in Afghanistan? Representatives of 70 nations met in London, England, this week to discuss that very idea. The plan was first floated several weeks ago by a key adviser to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Masoom Stanekzai, and it has two parts: One, lure low-level Taliban fighters out of the insurgency with economic incentives and two, co-opt Taliban leaders by offering them a role in governing Afghanistan.

Part one of the Stanekzai program makes sense because it might split rank-and-file fighters away from instigators of the insurgency (I prefer the word "instigators" to "leaders.") Part two, however, will only end up delivering the government of Afghanistan to a new Talibanist group and betray the millions of urban modernist Afghans who have sided with the West over the last decade.

So let's look at part one. Can the Taliban be "reintegrated" into Afghan society? Should they be? And most of all, who do we mean by "Taliban?"

The term used to mean an organization that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, but that Taliban fragmented out of meaningful existence after U.S. bombing drove them from Kabul. Their cadre melted into the hills, their leaders fled back to Pakistan. "The Taliban" then metastasized into "Talibanism," which is an ideology and an attitude -- a vague mixture of Islamic ideas, apocalyptic jihadism, Afghan nationalism, xenophobic localism and resentment.

Jihadists from Pakistan and the Arab world have used Talibanism to stir the embers of xenophobic localism in Afghanistan, and that's the insurgency we're talking about now. And the predatory venality of the Kabul government has certainly fed the blaze.

Those who secured positions with the government saw it as a license to squeeze the locals, and those same officials were best situated to suck up foreign funds coming in for Afghan reconstruction, so they got rich, while reconstruction foundered.

Ordinary shopkeepers, farmers, traders, artisans and whatnot had no civil society to join and no neutral place to stand. Radical activists seeping across the border from Pakistan burned schools, firebombed mosques if the imams gave pro-government sermons and killed farmers who accepted Western development aid. Trapped between a hard place and harder places, many young men joined the anti-government insurgency. At least there was money in it.

The lower ranks of the Afghan insurgency are undoubtedly swelled by men such as these: Disaffected locals who have little to lose and no source of meaning in their lives, except Talibanism. Would they be open to setting down their guns if any good-looking alternatives opened up? Plenty might.

The leaders of the insurgency -- the instigators -- are another matter. Mullah Omar? The sinister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? These guys think they have the West on the run. Conciliatory offers will only persuade them to dig in. Why accept a piece of a pie when you can have the whole thing?

Of course there are formidable problems with luring low-level fighters back into Afghan civil society. First of all, what civil society? Second, who will administer the program? Karzai's officials? Money is like DMSO to those guys. The moment it gets into their hands, it sinks into their palms. Third, donors are envisioning spending $500 million over five years to drain 30,000 fighters out of the insurgency. That comes to about $17,000 per man or about $3,300 a year. Those men could make more than that from drug-thuggery and Talibanist protection rackets.

Besides, a billion dollars distributed across southern Afghanistan thins out pretty quickly. What happens when some fighter joins the program, gets a bit of money and starts an auto repair shop, but his 25 first cousins don't? Will they not tar the one guy who profited from the program as a traitor who took foreign money to betray his own?

That said, part one of the Stanekzai program is worth a try. When you ain't got nothing, you got nothin' to lose, as the song says; and that's where Afghanistan stands. Half a billion dollars may sound like a lot to spend on an initiative that will probably achieve, at best, only a little. But compare that to the $30 billion it could cost to sustain an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for one year.

If those troops' mission is not linked to some plan for restoring civil society, they will actually inflame the insurgency (as they have been doing). So it's $30 billion to achieve negative results versus another half-billion to achieve something. A little. Maybe.

And maybe a great deal more. Over the last three years, "Talibanist" attacks have tripled, and most see this as a sign of growing "Taliban" strength. But there may be some tipping point to people's patience for violence.

If ordinary Afghans see a glimmer of a way to escape the endless violence and restore a normal life on their own terms, and if Talibanists continue to sabotage those options, and if the United States stops dispatching drones to bomb homes supposedly harboring terrorists, and if the Kabul government stops predatory intrusions into rural life... then a moment may come when the insurgency actually turns against the jihadists themselves as the outsiders (which many of them actually are).

There was, after all, a moment in 2001 when the rhetoric on the street spontaneously painted the Taliban that way. People referred to them routinely as "the Arabs and the Punjabis" (meaning Pakistanis). A rumor made the rounds that in the heart of Taliban headquarters, above the door to the Mullah Omar's office, hung a sign, which read: "Inside this room, there is no God, there is no Quran, there is no Islam."

Such a sentiment might emerge again. It's not probable but it's not impossible, and any initiative that might make it happen is worth a try.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamim Ansary.