“Some western experts on Afghanistan also claim to detect a difference between the old Taliban and the “neo-Taliban”. The movement has certainly changed its position on communication technology. Where it used to ban TV, it now has a sophisticated propaganda machine regularly commenting on the latest developments, as well as a website that offers statements, interviews and DVDs. The Taliban are also more diverse and fragmented. In some areas commanders ban music at weddings; in others they permit it.
Anders FÃ¤nge, the country director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, a large aid agency, has spent around 20 years in the country, also working as a journalist and a UN official. The Taliban should never have been portrayed in the black-and-white terms that Bush and Blair used, he says. During their period in power they often turned a blind eye to the discreet “home schools” where teachers taught girls in people’s flats or family compounds. “In 1998 the Taliban governor of [the central Afghan city] Ghazni told me, ‘We know you have these girls’ schools, but just don’t tell me about them.’ A Taliban minister even approached me and said, ‘I have two daughters. Can you get them in?’” he recalls.
Similar attitudes exist today, he says. In Wardak, a province close to Kabul that is heavily contested by Taliban and Nato forces, “we don’t have much problem with the Taliban,” says FÃ¤nge. “They accept girls’ schools and women doctors. They just ask for two hours of Islamic education in schools, that teachers grow beards and not spread propaganda against the Taliban.”
The difficulty comes from foreign Taliban, the Pakistanis and Arabs, or Taliban from other provinces. “At the local level, it’s a patchwork, a mosaic of local commanders, who may recognise Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader but are not under his control,” he adds.
FÃ¤nge’s points support the case, rarely mentioned by western politicians, that Taliban conservatism differs from the rest of the country in degree, not in kind. Afghanistan is a largely rural society where the oppression of women runs deep. Even in villages populated by Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek, Afghan women are routinely banned by husbands or fathers from leaving the family compounds, and girls are kept out of school, according to Afghan women reporters.
…One morning I drive to a marble-fronted two-storey house in a Kabul suburb that was ruined in the mid-1990s fighting but is now reviving as a favoured address for Afghanistan’s nouveaux riches. Wearing tinted glasses and a long green-and-purple-striped chapan (the signature garb of the elderly that President Karzai has made famous) a tall dignified man greets me. Arsalan Rahmani was deputy minister of higher education and later minister of Islamic affairs in the Taliban government. Four years ago Karzai invited him back to Kabul and made him a senator. He accepts the Taliban made a string of mistakes. “They didn’t have good management, they were young, they had no experts, doctors, and couldn’t run ministries. My boss was a boy of 25, who couldn’t even sign an official letter.”
He describes reports of restrictions on girls’ education and women being denied the chance to work as false. “That wasn’t their idea, then or now. We didn’t let girls go to school because of lack of security. There was a war on. But now in Pakistan, Taliban girls go to school and university. My son is a doctor and I want him to marry a lady doctor. I’ve got three daughters. During the Taliban time they were in Pakistan and all studied there.”
He goes on to tell an incredible story. “When I was deputy minister of higher education, people came to me and said they had girls who had finished school and wanted to study medicine. I consulted Mullah Omar and he authorised us to set up rooms in a central Kabul hospital, now called Daoud Khan hospital, where women could study to become doctors. Around 1,200 graduated, and if you track them down you’ll see my signature on their degree certificates,” he says.
I have no time to follow his advice but I do locate Shukria Barakzai, an independent woman MP who stayed in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation, the four-year rule by mujahideen warlords, and the Taliban period. She confirms the senator’s story."
…There are many roadblocks, not least the reluctance of the Obama administration. It has nailed its colours to two masts. One is a strategy of “re-integration”, aimed at winning the so-called $10-a-day Taliban footsoldiers back to the government side, partly by the “hearts and minds” investment in schools, clinics and other government services that is supposed to follow the current offensives in Helmand and Kandahar, and partly by offering them money to start new lives. The cash bribes irritate other Afghans who never joined the Taliban and now feel unrewarded. They also doubt the strategy will work since it requires surrender before the main Taliban grievance, the US occupation, is resolved.
The other US strategy, led by the senior commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is to use a massive surge of US forces (by the end of this year they will have tripled from the number left by Bush) to knock the Taliban back. He pays lip service to the notion of negotiation but he wants to inflict a severe blow on the Taliban first.
Yet senior European diplomats in Kabul have little hope in the surge. In February it took 16,000 US troops to capture Marjah, a district that is home to a few thousand people in Helmand province. General McChrystal’s plan is to recapture 40 districts this year and another 40 next year, but if progress is as slow as the Marjah operation, he is going to need 20 years, not two. In any case, reports from the ground in Marjah suggest US “control” is patchy. The Taliban went underground during the offensive but emerge after nightfall to punish or kill people who collaborate with the Americans.
…The trouble, as diplomats see it, is that Obama has not even authorised the CIA to put out feelers to the Taliban leadership on a “deniable” basis, a common way of initiating contacts. Nor has he begun to prepare the American public for the notion that the Taliban may not be demons but necessary negotiating partners. It would be as massive a U-turn in US policy as it was for the British government to talk to the IRA…"
2010-05-06 05:32:10 UTC