14 September 2010

GNU: government, wildebeest, red herring

Several years ago now, while interning at a human rights NGO in DC, I had the opportunity to speak with a human rights defender from Zimbabwe.  This was during the horrific post-election violence, as Mugabe was going after members of the MDC and other opposition groups in earnest.  There was a lot of speculation that Morgan Tsvangirai should cave and join his rival in a government of national unity (GNU).  The human rights defender I met with was adamantly against this plan, as Tsvangirai had won the elections outright.  Why, then, should he be forced to compromise anything with the brutal Mugabe regime, simply because it had control over the army?  Zimbabwe, he contended, deserved to be governed by the man its citizens had selected, and the international community did not have the right to suggest otherwise.


I find myself strongly reminded of his words now, as talk of engaging the Taliban is increasingly floating around, both within and outside of Kabul (and even in the United States Senate).  It is not totally analogous, of course.  The violence here is not confined to elections, and it's not a question of sating the party in power.  Rather, the much more expert than I are talking about getting buy-in from an insurgent group during a war that is very much still hot.  Yet, there are a number of lessons to be drawn from Africa and even Latin American in terms of co-opting the Taliban as legitimate political actors, or even more fully incorporating them into a GNU.


There is some precedence that suggests such a course of action has some promise.  In Colombia, the rebel factions ELP and M-19 both successfully made the transition from armed belligerents to valid political parties.  Similarly, African history is chockablock with instances of guerillas turned heads of states.  Among the most well-known are Rwanda's Paul Kigame, previously general of the rebel RPF, and Laurent Kabila of the DRC, who led the ADFL against Mobutu Sese Seko.  Certainly, there seems to be a prevailing sense in international diplomatic circles that negotiated settlements between combatants are crucial to ensuring security.


Of course, for every winning shift from rebel to patrician, there are scores more ending in failure.  If we stay with the same exemplar states, we see that decades of persistent effort to absorb the FARC and ELN into the Colombian political process have crashed.  Meanwhile, Laurent Nkunda's (reasonable) fear of prosecution at the hands of the International Criminal Court caused him to drop out of the transitional government in the Congo and found the CNDP.


Returning to Afghanistan, as that is the ostensible focus of this post, I have to confess that I'm a skeptic of a negotiated settlement.  Mark Sedra at CIGI has an excellent analysis of the viability of engagement with the Taliban, which includes a debunking of the notion of the Taliban as a homogenous, and thus accessible, actor.  Other concerns he discusses include potential for negotiations to introduce a greater opening for Pakistani manipulation of the process and likelihood of Taliban commanders to, once engaged, act as spoilers.  With regard to the first, Sedra posits that President Karzai is likely to quash any talks that threaten his hold on power.  As to the second, it is entirely conceivable that the Taliban could play the role of Charles Taylor, becoming even more destabilizing to the process once they are accepted as legitimate actors in it.


While there are all reasonable concerns, none particularly address my biggest issue with engaging the Taliban.  As the Zimbabwean activist made painfully clear to me, the push for GNUs from the international community is lazy and disingenuous.  It is a pitiful little bandage that major powers slap on when they've become bored but have too much guilt to ignore the problem totally.  It gives them (US, UN, NATO chose your favorite acronym and country combination) the opportunity to abandon an intractable conflict under the plausible deniability of allowing Afghans to solve Afghanistan's problems.  Completely bi-passing the need for justice and reconciliation, policy makers somehow manage to convince themselves that security, or rather, a temporary lull in the killing, equates to stability.  Never mind the civil war that will erupt as soon as someone doesn't feel like playing nicely.


Frankly, I find it appalling that we would countenance negotiations with the Taliban, let alone the possibility of including them in a power-sharing arrangement.  These are the same people who, when they were in power, wantonly destroyed international heritage sites.  I have heard numerous first-hand accounts of the Taliban beating people for attending the 'wrong' mosque.  One of my local co-workers was imprisoned with nearly 100 others in a small room simply because he tried to keep his restaurant open from 12-1pm, a mandatory prayer time.  When he was released, after having stood in the squalled darkness for over a week, he shaved his beard in protest and was savagely beaten.


Now that they are cast in the roll of insurgent, these same people account for as much as 76 per cent of all civilian casualties  Generally, the Taliban is composed of violent, controlling sociopaths who dominate with fear, not govern with respect.  Whatever the motives of vengeance and retribution that engendered this campaign, it is now a predominantly a humanitarian affair.  To diplomatically validate the Taliban now would be a betrayal not only of the Afghans, but also of our own mission.


Of course, I could be way off base here.  After all, look at how well it's worked out in Zimbabwe.