October is fast approaching, and with it the ninth anniversary of US and UK involvement in Afghanistan. A campaign launched to eradicate al-Qaeda and the Taleban inter alia in 2001 seems, in 2010, to have made only limited progress.
The apparent ineffectuality of entering into conflict in this mountainous pocket of the Middle East is not without considerable historical precedent; for centuries forces have fought – and lost – campaigns in the region, few ending more disastrously than the first Anglo-Afghan War in which Major-General Elphinstone led British forces to slaughter at the hands of the Ghilzai warriors of Afghanistan in 1842. Elusiveness of military victory has been the rule, not the exception, in Afghanistan and this is a mantra which looks set to continue long into the 21st century.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so much talk recently has focused upon the prospect of negotiating with the Taleban. In March this year, the Washington Post carried a story which revealed that David Miliband had issued calls for “early and substantive political negotiations between the Afghanistan government and the Taleban”, a call which grew out of a pre-existing desire to see “moderate” insurgents brought into talks.
What ostensibly began as a debating point regarding the merits of appeasement has made a firm impression upon politicians, not least the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. Fraser Nelson points to the words of author Ahmed Rashid, who avers that Karzai “seems to have given up on the ability of the Americans, the Brits and Nato either to defeat the Taleban or even to talk to them. This is why he has turned to Pakistan and Iran: his own freelance attempt to try to broker a ceasefire with the Taleban which would involve a power-sharing deal."
I do not profess to know whether or not such a deal could work. This article does not permit the space for such an inquiry, this notwithstanding the fact that prescient foresight is limited where such tentative divides are concerned. Exploring the merits of entering into peace talks with the Taleban is for a different article to consider and as such, I make no attempt to wrestle with that particular issue here.
My criticism is instead directed towards the way in which proponents of a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan point to Northern Ireland as a blueprint. Speaking on this very issue, Douglas Alexander stated last year that “people recognise from the experience of places like Northern Ireland that it is necessary to put military pressure on the Taleban while at the same time holding out the prospect that there can be a political process that can follow, whereby those that are willing to renunciate violence can follow a different path”.
Yet this assertion rests upon a subtle – yet crucial – presupposition: that what the Taleban seek can be accommodated within a power-sharing deal, as took place in the case of Irish Republicans. Yet Irish Catholics sought fair treatment and a semblance of political equality; a proportionally representative assembly, reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and an end to segregation within public services therefore provided the basis for easing cohabitation between Protestants and Catholics.
For the Taleban, however, there is less room for manoeuvre. The imperious and oppressive nature of their demands represents an ideology for which conciliation is a non-concept; a 2001 New York Times article pointed to Taleban calls for music, television, chess, nail polish and even pictures to be banned. Whereas in Northern Ireland power-sharing represented the opportunity for a divided society to make decisions together through popular consent, the problem in Afghanistan is one of accommodating the strict, often reprehensible will of a movement whose aim is to impose an ideology, not to represent the will of the governed.
If talks with the Taleban are to take place, then the West must dispense with the idea that the Northern Ireland set-up would help bring peace to Afghanistan. To maintain this fallacy is to miss the fact that any comparison drawn along these lines is extremely dubious, and rests upon a spurious understanding of what the Taliban stands for.
This is not the same as saying that peace talks can never work – rather, it is to say that before any such avenue is explored, the relevant diplomatic parties could do far worse than to disestablish the myth that our experience in Northern Ireland somehow gifts us with any degree of circumspection. This is a new challenge in and of itself, and should be treated as such.