Twelve years have passed since the United States invaded Afghanistan in order to destroy al-Qaida and to drive out the Taliban regime that had given it safe harbor.
Now U.S. officials have announced they will begin talks with Taliban officials as a step toward the kind of reconciliation that might finally bring peace to that tormented land. Announcement of the talks coincides with the transfer of responsibility for leadership of security operations from U.S. to Afghan military forces.
The U.S.-Taliban talks will take place in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban have opened up an office and agreed to talk. Previously, the Taliban leadership has considered the United States to be an invader and not a legitimate party to talks about Afghanistan’s future. Meanwhile, the Taliban have carried out a continuing campaign of bombings and killings.
And yet much has changed in 12 years. Reports from Afghanistan suggest that a significant migration to the cities has exposed a high percentage of the population to a range of modern media. Education has bloomed, particularly among women and particularly among previously oppressed minorities.
When U.S. forces arrived in Kabul in 2001, they found a hollow shell of a nation. The Taliban at the time were a primitive movement, dominated by ill-educated clerics and bearded men with guns in pick-up trucks. They had imposed a brutal, anti-modern, anti-woman regime. Government ministries had been more or less gutted, and the nation had been traumatized by more than 20 years of war. Anarchy and thuggery prevailed. The Taliban had been welcomed because they had brought order to the chaos, but their brand of order was soon revealed to be based on repression and violence.
They were able to govern because their nation lay supine at their feet.
Much has been made of the corruption of the Karzai regime and of the broader Afghan tradition of bakhsheesh and bribery. But even as the Karzais and others have prospered, skimming their millions from the inflow of foreign money, Afghan society has evolved and become more sophisticated. A wider swath of the country has a stake in the continuation of a semblance of peace. That would include the Pashtun south, which is the homeland of the Taliban movement.
For the Karzai government and the United States to talk with the Taliban is to begin a process that could knit together the disparate elements of Afghan society. Somehow the Pashtuns must find a way to live with the other ethnic groups that form Afghan society — Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, among others. The Taliban will not be able to sweep into Kabul and take over as easily as before, even with a preparatory assault by suicide bombers. Everyone has too much to lose, and that includes the Afghan military, in which the non-Pashtun minorities are well represented. It includes the Pashtun population as well.
The Afghan central government was never strong, and it is not likely to be strong after the U.S. leaves and after a rapprochement with the Taliban. Those whom we call warlords were previously the large landowners and village or tribal chieftains who ran the nation with only loose control from Kabul. That is how the country will be run in the future, as long as one group does not try to seize control over all the others.
The United States succeeded in decimating al-Qaida, but it was never going to succeed in rewriting Afghan history or remaking Afghan society. Failure could be the only result of seeking to do that. But by giving Afghanistan the time to get back on its feet, with the help of that fountain of U.S. money, the United States may have allowed Afghan society and the Afghan state to grow strong enough to withstand the centrifugal forces that might otherwise tear it apart. The inability of the U.S. military to pacify all parts of Afghanistan should not be seen as a failure. No one conquers Afghanistan. Instead, one hopes that the new talks between the Taliban and the Afghan and U.S. governments mean that the Afghan people will emerge as the winners.
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