Dealing with the Taleban: business as usual?

Now we know that the Wendi Deng Twitter account is fake(even though her husband, Rupert Murdoch’s, is not), you might be forgiven for thinking the story about the Taleban opening an international political office has a ring of … inauthenticity about it.

Apparently not so. The notorious armed group responsible for 15 years’ of atrocities in Afghanistan – including cruel punishments, attacks on civilians, hostage-taking (and hostage murdering), harsh and inhuman restrictions on women and girls’ freedoms, and much more – are to open an office in Qatar. Presumably it will have a discreet entrance (no fancy brass plate or neon), but decent air-conditioning to cope with the Gulf climate.

Isn’t it an outrage to allow this group this semblance of respectability? What next – business cards? Corporate gifts with the Taleban logo?

Actually, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Conflict resolution is famously about negotiation, involving the adoption of protracted, painful but necessary new stances on all sides. If allowing the Taleban the dignity of a headquartered political identity means it will stop killing men, women and children that may be the right thing to do. The governments of Afghanistan, the US, the UK and many Nato countries presumably see this as a humbling but necessary compromise for their side: you can’t defeat them militarily or through law-enforcement means, so you negotiate with those most prepared to talk. (Similarly, I imagine that Mullah Omar and others on the Taleban side risk losing face with certain battle-hardened frontline armed groups by allowing themselves a fancy office from which to talk to the “foreign invaders”).

But leaving aside the glass plate and the real estate, what worries me – as I’ve said numerous times on this blog – is the growing sense that a newly-emboldened Taleban is set to wring more and more concession out of the Kabul authorities. In particular, the fear is that women’s rights will be the first to be sacrificed by President Karzai (or his successor). At the recent inter-governmental Bonn meeting on Afghanistan for instance, an Afghan civil society delegate – Barry Salaam – warned the international community that peace and reconciliation must not “jeopardise … the rights of women”. Are they listening …?

I’ve previously discussed how the Afghan government has an inglorious record on defending women’s rights in recent years (though there have been concrete improvements in terms of education and healthcare). It’s not just the government, but local officials right across the country. The horrific case of Sahar Gul, the 15-year-old girl who was tortured for months by her soldier husband and his family, brought with it numerous allegations of connivance by the police and local authorities. In this sense the Taleban’s anti-women policies could be playing to a receptive audience in many parts of Afghanistan.

The “Taleban talks” story has been rumbling on now for years, but a new twist is that these are apparently set to include a deal over the release of Taleban detainees at Guantánamo. OK, fine. After ten long years GTMO’s status as an absolute icon of lawlessness is fixed. It’s a huge stain on the reputation of the USA, and 171 people are still behind bars there (167 without any trial at all, four who’ve been put through unfair ones). However, if the Taleban-brokered releases mean ignoring serious criminal offences committed by Guantánamo detainees, that too would be a betrayal of justice.

So whether or not the talks with the Taleban occur in Qatar or Quetta, they need to stick to some firm principles. “Human rights” needs to be down in black and white on the meeting agenda. Whether or not the agenda is printed on expensive paper embossed with the Taleban’s logo …

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