Talkin’ Taliban

In the face of worsening violence and leaks from a classified report that “concludes Afghanistan is in a downward spiral” Defense Secretary (and occasional superhero) Robert M. Gates has endorsed talks with Taliban leaders.

Better late than never?

Coalition and Afghan government reconciliation with receptive Taliban is crucial to the future of a quasi-stable and quasi-peaceful Afghanistan. It generally is accepted if Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. want to retain a central government like Karzai’s, as fragile as it might be, brokering some sort of agreement with receptive Taliban might be key to avoiding further decline.

Some pundits and think tanks say the “desire to engage the Taliban” began last year, but such efforts date back to the early years of U.S. forces’ sojourn in this land of rugged beauty. In 2004, some coalition leaders on the ground talked to the Taliban regularly. Why? Because they had to — and it worked.

Since the first provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) appeared on the scene, the enormous undertaking of rebuilding this vast nation would have been impossible without close collaboration with local leaders — Taliban in some areas. One PRT commander, the first in Paktika Province, a region perched on the perilous Afghanistan-Pakistan border says, “There are good Taliban and bad Taliban,” his wisdom apparent with the passage of time and a deteriorating situation.

Good Taliban? According to our PRT commander, if local leaders (Taliban or otherwise) are taking care of their villages (and are not otherwise provincial thugs), it works, though relationships are anything but simple. Thugs? Those are the bad Taliban. Engage the good, theoretically the bad are forced out. It has worked on a smaller scale, but will it work for all of Afghanistan?

As the world peers into what could be the Afghanistan abyss, Gates and others admit the Afghanistan of tomorrow might not be the pillar of American-style democracy they tried to sell at one time. This should be no surprise. It seems everyone finally is in agreement there might be no future for Afghanistan as it’s now known unless elements of the Taliban are accepted on some level. Will they meet in Karzai’s Western-style digs or will Mohammad go to the mountain? Regardless, despite these seemingly desperate circumstances forcing reconciliation, hopefully, PRTs (and special operations units … you know who you are) throughout Afghanistan have maintained strong ties with the good (and the bad when necessary).

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