Ten years after, what have we learned?

The Globe and Mail reports that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan would "welcome" the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar, to serve as a headquarters for peace negotiations.

The Globe and Mail reports that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan would “welcome” the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar, to serve as a headquarters for peace negotiations. A desire to negotiate is neither new nor surprising from Karzai, who faces the strong possibility of being beheaded in a football stadium about five days after the last American troops leave the country.

Karzai has changed his position on these particular negotiations, though. He had been demanding that the Taliban stop fighting before the start of talks, and was opposed to the Qatar location. According to the New York Times, it took “prodding by his American and European backers” to convince him to support the idea.

What’s also new is that there is someone across the table. Though peace negotiations haven’t begun, aren’t even a sure thing yet, both sides are talking about talking, the first step in any talks. Up till now the Taliban has refused to negotiate until all foreign troops left Afghan soil. They have always known that day would come, that determined resistance would wear down the invading forces as it always has. Now all the coalition armies are leaving, planning to leave, or gone. With that final withdrawal date of 2014 looming, why did the Taliban agree to talk? Maybe it’s because the Americans are sweetening the pot.

The Guardian is reporting that the U.S. has agreed in principle to release several high-ranking Taliban officials from Guantanamo Bay. Included in the names under discussion is that of former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund. The Taliban has got to be smelling blood on this one; if they can get an American president to release senior officials of the government that harboured al-Qaida, and do it during an election year just to bring them to the negotiating table, what can they expect when the Qatar talks begin?

Three thousand NATO troops are lost, uncounted thousands of Afghan civilians slaughtered, untold billions spent in a 10-year war that has done little to benefit millions of hungry and oppressed citizens. The American and allied adventure in Afghanistan has been a terrible failure. If Barack Obama wants to be a two-term president, it falls to him to put some gloss of success on it that the American people can accept. So now the U.S. is in the position of doing what it should have done a decade ago, and talking to the Taliban.

Bombing and invading Afghanistan was a popular choice in the wake of the 2001 Trade Centre attacks. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan had a proven link to al-Qaida, and no army to speak of. Endorsed by the UN, the mission to clear Afghanistan of terrorist training centres looked like a nice clean, easy war, at the start.

Then the stories began to leak out. On our side illegal detention, torture, massacre of civilians, drone attacks on wedding parties, on the Taliban’s a fierce resistance employing assassinations, roadside bombs, torture, and arson attacks. It’s too late to turn back the clock on all this lunacy, so now the question becomes, What have we learned?

Canada was one of the countries that joined the Bush bandwagon in Afghanistan, though we wisely kept out of Iraq. Stephen Harper wanted us to join in both wars. Today, with promises of a new “robust foreign policy” ringing in our ears, Canadians might be worried that Harper is incapable of learning from the past. Fear not.

In 2003 Harper was saying, “We support the war effort and believe we should be supporting our troops and our allies and be (in Iraq) with them doing everything necessary to win.” By 2008 he had reversed that position, saying, “It (the Iraq invasion) was absolutely an error…we will not be sending troops.” In 2006, the Conservatives labeled Jack Layton “Taliban Jack” because he acknowledged the inevitability that we would negotiate with the Taliban, later if not sooner. In 2010 Harper was saying that “It has always been our position that (negotiating with the Taliban) is part of an eventual solution”.

So you see, there is hope for the future. Even the Harper government is capable of learning lessons from 10 years of useless and brutal war. Not only is the prime minister able to change his mind when presented with inescapable facts, he can change it retroactively.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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