Talking to the Taleban: deal or no deal?

Perhaps we’d better get Noel Edmonds in …. all this talk of deals with the Taleban is starting to take on an air of unreality.

Ahead of today’s big Afghanistan conference in London, Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai have been speaking – all very confidently – about “dividing” the Taleban. Listen to their joint BBC interview here.

Asked about the basis of doing deals with Taleban fighters who were (somehow) established to be “separate” from al-Qa’ida and willing to renounce terrorism, Messrs Brown and Karzai each had one big theme. For Brown the “conditionality” issue is the need to strengthen the army Afghan and police force. For Karzai it’s all about the Taleban ending the insurgency and “accepting the Afghan constitution”.

Hmmm. How realistic is all this? Talking to the Taleban is fine but how convincing is the notion – now much-mentioned – of “moderate” or “renconcilable” Taleban elements?

Or put it this way: how are women and girls in Afghanistan supposed to feel about this? Imagine you’re a female teacher in a rural Afghanistan province – how confident would you be feeling that all this is not going to mean a partial restoration of neo-Taleban chauvinisms and discrimination? In other words, isn’t there a danger of former Taleban gunmen becoming the new “big men” in Afghan villages? They’ve “won” the war, negotiated favourable terms with a weakened central government and now they can set about setting up their own local rules about schools, women’s freedoms, wider “moral” issues and punishments for transgressors.

It’s a real risk and we’re not hearing much to assuage our fears. Let’s not forget, it was less than a year ago that Karzai’s government agreed the Shiite Personal Status Law effectively legalising the rape of women in marriage in Afghanistan’s Shi’a minority community. (Yes, it was later rowed back from – under intense international pressure – but this was a major warning about how little the Karzai government seemed to care about women’s human rights).

The Afghan president also has “form” over rehabilitating the wrong people. He recently appointed Abdul Rashid Dostum as his army chief of staff despite the fact that Dostum is wanted for alleged human rights offences. Karzai has even pardoned people convicted of gang rape. Meanwhile the Afghan parliament is littered with shady figures accused of serious human rights violations who have links to warlords and heroin traders.

Reassured yet? No, nor me. Ending a blood-soaked insurgency is obviously important but at what cost? It looks to me like a war-weary world is so eager to strike a deal with the Taleban that they may not be too bothered about the fine print. Let’s hope that the “Terms and conditions” in the deal don’t say something like “Human rights may be forfeit in future”.

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