For several years, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has been trying to negotiate and reconcile with supposedly moderate elements of the Taliban to end the insurgency. This approach has failed every time. Thus it is puzzling to many Afghans that President Obama has also been talking about negotiating with “moderates.” Let’s hope that when the two men met in Washington this week, along with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, the idea of reaching out to the Islamic extremists was shelved once and for all.
After all, President Karzai’s efforts have simply revealed the weakness of the Afghan government and its international allies. Taliban spokesman have repeatedly demanded unacceptable conditions for talks, including the departure of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and the establishment of Shariah law.
Indeed, shortly after Mr. Obama raised the subject of reconciliation, the Taliban rejected his proposal, stating there were no extremists or moderate groups within their ranks. On this point at least, the Taliban are right. Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, put it very clearly: “The Taliban were united under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar. All the fighters follow and obey orders of one central command. The existence of moderates and extremist elements within the rank and file of Taliban is wishful thinking of the West and the Afghan government.”
What can be the purpose of talks with the Taliban? These men deprive women of their rights, throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls, reject religious freedom and oppose constitutional democracy. They also threaten to kill any Afghans who have worked with Western militaries and nongovernmental groups or had other contact with foreigners.
Is it possible, as some have said, that the Taliban have mellowed since being toppled in 2001? Muhammad Ibrahim Hanafi, a top Taliban commander, answered that question in an interview in March with CNN: “Our law is still the same old law which was in place during our rule in Afghanistan.”
The more President Karzai and his Western allies talk about reconciliation, the farther their public support will plummet. I returned to Afghanistan in 2001 after more than two decades in America and founded a manufacturing company with the intention of using part of its profits to help young women get an education. In the early days, the discussions at our organization’s meetings were dominated by talk of building schools and other big plans. Lately, however, the main topic has been the future of us women in Afghanistan under another Taliban regime. We know that there is not, and will never be, any “moderate Taliban.” Extremists and ideologues do not compromise.
The atmosphere has been made worse by the president’s signing of a family law affecting Shiite Muslims that places restrictions on when a woman can leave her house and states the circumstances in which she is obliged to have sex with her husband. I was part of a group of civil-society representatives who recently met with President Karzai to express our concerns about the law; he replied that he hadn’t known the full details when he signed it and promised to “fight for us” to have it amended. We’ll see. But his later statement that “there are no reconciliation processes” going on with the Taliban, which seems at odds with the facts, did not inspire much hope.
The family law and other governmental efforts to appease religious extremists are having one effect that reminds me of the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1979: Afghanistan is being drained of the people who would be most effective at putting it back together. It seems as if every group of Afghans that attends training programs in the West now returns just a bit smaller. Last year, the accountant and the top administrator of my factory left for the Netherlands with their families. My new accountant recently went to Islamabad, Pakistan, to meet with German Embassy officials about a possible visa.
This is a far cry from the 1960s and ’70s, when many Afghans, including my father and five of my uncles, studied abroad on scholarships but returned to work in the government or to start businesses and create jobs. That sense of nationalism has disappeared; unless we rediscover it, Afghanistan will become a failed state.
The only “reconciliation” strategy that is going to work is one between the Kabul government and the Afghan people. The key is making changes at the community level. Many local mullahs and citizens who have tolerated the Taliban in the past are open to working with a government that can protect them and help them find livelihoods. The government and its allies can best weaken the insurgency by better protecting the population, organizing local citizens’ groups to cooperate on economic development, and hiring more people from every part of the country into the growing Afghan Army and police force.
This is the only way that the reconcilables will be separated from the irreconcilables. We need to understand where Afghanistan’s true moderates are to be found, and not look for them in leadership positions of one of the most repressive organizations on earth.
By Hassina Sherjan, the president of Boumi, a manufacturer of decorative products for the home, and the director of Aid Afghanistan for Education, a nonprofit group.