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Afghan civil society must not be abandoned

Afghan civil society and NATO war aims: talk to the Taleban and all traditional leaders
Carlo Ungaro
23 July 2010

When it comes to counting casualties, whether of military action, or of an accident or a disaster, there is a particular poignancy, almost a magical quality, in round numbers. It was therefore quite appropriate and understandable that, some weeks ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron should have commented on the three hundredth British death in the Afghan war.

This circumstance, perhaps, had more of a moral or psychological than a practical significance. It happened, however, to coincide with many other signs pointing to the need of urgent re-evaluation of the ultimate war aims in Afghanistan . It also shortly preceded signs of an evident deepening of the confusion and disarray which, for some time, have characterized both military and civilian activity there.

Much attention is rightly being focussed on the apparently inevitable military failure in Afghanistan. Dismay and frustration at the ever more confused enunciation of the war aims are also frequently expressed as explanations for the reasons of our presence and our ultimate goals there keep multiplying with amazing prolificacy, and have never really managed to be convincing. The lack of clarity emerged from the very beginning, when the justification was apparently simple and straightforward: the elimination and possible capture of the Al Qaeda hierarchy active in Afghanistan. Since then there has been only contradiction and confusion, until recently often amplified and enhanced by a prevalently unquestioning international press.

It is therefore understandable, but nonetheless unfortunate, that little time or space can be dedicated to the impact that this war – added on to two previous decades of conflict – is having on Afghan civil society, especially, but not only, on the women, who, along with significant ethnic minorities have much to fear from a return of the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural groups live, today as before, in separate and distinctive realities. These differences should be considered in any attempt to envision a viable political future for a country which will always – to its misfortune – maintain a strategic importance.

Afghanistan’s civil society is, to a great extent, an extremely reliable model of stability, and, in spite of all the years of conflict – two foreign invasions with the interval of a long civil war – has not much changed since the years in which we, who lived there and loved the country, could travel freely, safely and comfortably from Kabul to all outlying areas.

It is a well known fact that the Taleban, as a socio-political phenomenon, are a relatively recent creation, encouraged in their early years as a weapon against the Soviet occupation. However, even in the seventies, what could be called a “Taleban mentality” existed in parts of the country: it could be said that for the people (particularly the women) of, for example, Khost or Kandahar, the difference between the years of Taleban rule and their usual lifestyle was not really very noticeable, except, perhaps, for increased security and a drastic fall in the level of corruption.

In fact, we must remember, that the Taleban takeover was welcomed in many parts of Afghanistan and by large segments of the population of Kabul, while it was feared by some of the ethnic groups – mainly the Hazara (pdf) – in the North and viewed with great apprehension in the Western areas, particularly in Herat.

These differences persist, and I was fascinated by the sense of “déjà vu” I felt, in post-Taleban years, travelling from Herat to Shindand, in the same province: Herat has always been a model of “Persian” civilisation, with people, friendly open-minded, and curious about foreigners. One saw many uncovered women’s faces there, and a sight which always struck me as particularly heartening was that of young girls, neatly dressed in school uniforms, marching off to receive the education which the Taleban had denied them. Shindand, instead, had all the austerity of a Pashtu town. The few women on the streets fully covered, the men, all bearded, strictly minding their own business and children being the only ones to show curiosity.

Civil society in Herat and similarly inclined areas would suffer greatly from the return of the Taleban, as would most of the ethnic groups in the north, the Hazara having the additional “handicap” of their “oriental” looks and of being in vast majority Shia.

There is a growing realisation of the need to “talk” to the Taleban, but, in my view, any negotiation with them should include also traditional leaders from non-Taleban areas, even if this should involve the so-called “War Lords”, and should be held on the basis of a future Afghanistan ruled on the principle of regional or provincial autonomy. The Taleban, on their part, will have quite a handful trying to control their own area, which some call “Pashtunistan”, negotiating and fighting with their peers on the Pakistani side of the infamous “Durand Line” (pdf).

The welfare of Afghan civil society is, by now, also our responsibility, and it would be tragic to abandon these people to their fate.

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