The Children of Afghanistan
The Children of Afghanistan

This important exchange took place at ICAR, my school, in recent days. This debate addresses a topic we must think about which is how and whether to engage extremists who have committed massive war crimes. Inevitably it devolves into questions of what we know and who we know it from, which also gets into issues of trust and distrust of prevailing sources of information in the West and elsewhere. I have come to see in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially the Israeli/Hamas conflict and the Hamas/Fatah conflict, that reliable information is very hard to come by. This is where we need to listen to each other, listen to victims, agree on core principles, and move forward with plans that attack the problem from several directions. It begins with Saira Yamin’s letter to NYT, continues with Professor Richard Rubenstein’s response and then Saira’s response:

More Force in Afghanistan?
New York Times, April 2, 2009

“Graveyard Myths,” by Peter Bergen (Op-Ed, March 28), gets the picture half-right. Restoring law and order in Afghanistan is indeed critical to winning the war. Quashing the Taliban is fundamental. But the view that a United States troop surge can bring stability to the region is worrisome. This would lead to a tit-for-tat reaction by the Taliban.

The Taliban are not an ethnic group. They represent a religious movement thriving on the conviction, right or wrong, that they are waging jihad against a Western onslaught. The Taliban may not be popular, but the engagement of Western troops has led to the spread of the movement in Pakistan as well as the recruitment of thousands of Muslims from Central Asia, Arab states and Southeast Asia.

Training the Afghan National Army and police forces to overcome the movement is crucial. Who can do it? Not President Obama’s troops.

Saira Yamin
Arlington, Va., March 28, 2009

Click here to Read the Article:

Response from Richard Rubenstein:

Congratulations to Saira for having her letter published in the NYT. I think it is great for our students to develop such strong voices. At the same time, it would be useful at some point to discuss the Afghanistan/Pakistan question together at some length.

I do not agree with Saira that “quashing” the Taliban is “fundamental” or that training the Afghan army and police to “overcome the movement” is “crucial.” Johan Galtung and I (among others) think that the Taliban are both a religious movement and a movement of the Pashtun people, that “quashing” them is impossible except at an unacceptable financial and moral cost, that they are far less monolithic than they sometimes appear, and that it will be possible, if done correctly, to deal with them in ways other than by trying to crush them. I also believe that training Mr. Karzai’s army and police to fight the Taliban is probably unfeasible and is not America’s business in any case.

What the U.S. can do as a nation is to help the Afghan people satisfy their basic needs by providing them with development funds and assistance, channeled where possible through international agencies. What conflict resolvers can do is to help them resolve their differences, to the extent possible, as independent consultants, and not as U.S. agents.

It seems particularly important to have this sort of discussion now — and publicly — since the Obama administration is floundering as it tries to satisfy both the Pentagon and anti-war forces at home and abroad. The administration appears to have accepted the al Qaeda = Taliban equation, which seems to me a fatal error. Michael Shank’s and Rep. Honda’s recent writings on the Afghan-Pak situation deserve careful study, since they take a nuanced view of the situation. So do Galtung’s.

Richard Rubenstein
From Saira:

Dear Professor Rubenstein,

I am extremely pleased to know of your interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I strongly agree that there is a need for ICAR to generate options in response to President Obama’s military solutions for the region. President Obama has announced a troop surge of 17,000 and is also considering a request for an additional 70,000 for Afghanistan, with the plan to go deeper and wider into Pakistan as well.

I wholeheartedly agree with your view that a development strategy for Afghanistan is essential. I am a strong advocate of this approach even though I did not have the space to mention it in my Letter to the Editor. I would also like to recommend development assistance for Pakistan’s impoverished tribal areas along the Afghan border, in particular. In regard to development strategies I would favor more opportunities for Pakistan and Afghanistan for trade with the US and the rest of the world. The plowshares for peace approach, (see “How the US can help revitalize economies in Pakistan and Afghanistan” ) would be useful in this respect.

Trade rather than aid, shall allow indigenous communities an opportunity to contribute to the economy. Foreign aid promotes subservience to foreign donors and hence interferes with local policy making. A lot of aid has been channeled into Afghanistan for several years through international development agencies and has been mostly mismanaged. Similarly the US has now made a commitment for a $15 billion aid package for Pakistan. I am not sure who is going to enjoy the aid: the people of Pakistan or the corrupt President Zardari and his cronies.

In response to your views about the Taliban being monolithic, I would like to stress that is important not to take the Taliban as a primarily Pashtun movement. There are about 40 million Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, (with about 25 million in Pakistan alone.) The approximately 15 million Pashtuns living in Afghanistan constitute roughly 40% of the population. The 40 million Pashtuns, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan do not as a whole or even a majority, subscribe to the Taliban views, although that is the perception in the West. Further, all Taliban are not as radical in their religious views as the ones allied with al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda linked Taliban, the ones that pose a threat, constitute the Pashtuns, Arabs, Uzbeks, and many other Muslims from various states and regions. To this list let me also add Muslims from Europe and the United States, many of whom have joined the ranks and files of the Taliban in the spirit of Jihad against a Western military intevention i.e. the Global War on Terrorism. The fast growing Tehreek-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP or the Taliban movement in Pakistan) is also successfully recruiting thousands of unemployed and impoverished Punjabis, which represent Pakistan’s largest ethnic group. Again, not all Punjabi are pro-Taliban. The seeds of the Taliban movement were sown during the Afghan Jihad against the former Soviet Union. The Mujahideen, many of whom became Taliban were able to recruit about 50,000 non-Afghan Taliban. The non-Afghan Taliban were Muslims from various international regions I have mentioned above.) Many of the Taliban fighting against the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), are Uzbeks and Arabs who have been settled along the tribal borders across Pakistan and Afghanistan for decades, since their engagement with the former Soviets. Many of them are mercenaries and their leaders are misusing the Islamic card to make money for themselves. Many of them are indoctrinating youth in madrassahs against the wishes of parents.

The radical Taliban are penetrating deeper into Pakistan. They have been destroying girls schools in Pakistan’s north western region. There are 450,000 Pakistanis displaced in Pakistan owing to confrontation between the Taliban, the Pakistan Army, US and Nato Forces. The Taliban assassinated Benazir Bhutto and have very radical views about the rights of women. I am not sure the Taliban ideology can be addressed through development approaches alone, especially when there is so much money coming in from foreign suppliers to keep the Taliban engaged in the region.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are both impoverished countries. They are not similar however. They are both experiencing different problems, and are at different stages of conflict and development. The Taliban definitely are a common problem for both countries. The Pashtuns in Afghanistan in particular feel frustrated with the Western view of the Taliban and Pashtun as a homogenous entity. The rise of the Taliban cannot and must not be attributed to Pashtun culture alone. The ascendancy of a fundamentalist religious agenda infused in the Afghan Jihad to oust the Soviets, is partly to blame, and it is now being directed against the US and its allies. Today the Taliban pose a very grave threat to my country. A female State Minister has also been assassinated by them. A female professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad was physically assaulted by a Taliban, who said he had been ordained by God to tell her to cover her head.

I want a safe environment back home for myself and my daughter and wish the same for all the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the international community must do their part in ensuring equitable distribution of resources to the poor so they are not lured by employment with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In the meantime the people deserve protection from the violence being perpetrated by the Taliban. Law and order must be enforced. Negative peace is the first step towards positive peace, and it will not come through long-term development plans alone.

I look forward to your thoughts.



Meanwhile, this important article by Martin Gerner on recent interest of some elements of the Taliban in Obama’s words is quite timely.

Finally, I had conversations recently indicating that there were some Taliban involved in peace and coexistence trainings in nearby countries. As with all groups, there are factions and factions, there is evolution, and there is always some positive reaction from some when they are sought out. What these trainings are doing, what President Obama’s overtures are doing, is creating options in people’s minds, nonviolent ways out of traps,  which in turn instigates creative pressures within groups and stimulates more change. This is what we seek in the world the most, not promises of ‘peace in our time’ which is unrealistic but, increments of positive change, creative ferment. This will be a central theme of my next book coming out in June with Rowman Littlefield.

© Marc Gopin