US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are openly talking about negotiating with so-called “moderate Taliban” in Afghanistan. But are there “moderate” Taliban? And what could these negotiations be about? At a recent conference in Bonn on “Local Politics in Afghanistan”, experts offered some insights from a grassroots perspective.
The Afghan people cannot elect their local officials
The Taliban movement which is waging an insurgency against foreign troops and the Karzai government in Afghanistan these days cannot simply be seen as a continuation of the Taliban who occupied large parts of the country in the 1990s as a radical, fundamentalist Pashtoon movement. Leading a guerrilla war and also administrating occupied territory demands a local support base, says Antonio Giustozzi, an expert on the Taliban at the London School of Economics. And this does have a moderating influence on the Taliban:
"The Taliban present themselves as something new, compared to the nineties. They tend not to call themselves Taliban, they call themselves Mujahedin now. They are not invading the territory of the minorities, they tend to co-opt them."
Negotiations as a strategy
At times the Taliban can be very pragmatic, argues Giustozzi: If a local commander refuses to close girls’ schools in his area, they might still allow him to join the movement. But this does not necessarily mean that negotiating with the Taliban leadership would be productive.
"Negotiations are a political strategy which could lead to peace, maybe, but could also lead to many other things", Giustozzi maintains. "In the case of Afghanistan, negotiations were often used on both sides, particularly the Mujahedin side and the Pakistani side, to actually destabilize the government in Kabul. So I think the Taliban, particularly the mainstream Taliban, Mullah Omar, are interested in negotiations, but what their actual, ultimate aim is, is not clear. I personally believe that they would not settle for a power sharing deal with the existing government."
Centralized form of government
Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan scholar teaching at Indiana University in the United States, agrees that simply offering some ministries in Kabul to the Taliban won’t solve anything. For him, granting community self-governance at grassroots level is the only alternative. So far, the political elite in Kabul insists on running the country from the top down to the districts.
Shahrani gives an example: "In Helmand, one of the Taliban commanders in Musa Qala changed sides. What did they do? They appointed him the district officer of Musa Qala! Why not allow the Musa Qala people to elect him? If they elected him, he would be their man! But now that government has appointed him, he is a target to be killed by the Taliban!"
A widening gap between elite and society
By the same logic, Taliban representatives might be elected to run the local government in their strongholds. Shahrani says the result might not be Western-style democracy. But he insists that only a more participatory form of government will be able to bridge the gap between the westernized elite and the more conservative society in Afghanistan.
"People at the local level will be happy with their own leaders. They will choose people they believe are also good Muslims", says Shahrani. "What we're getting now is this perception that those who have come from the West and are ruling the country are undermining everything Islamic."
So far, this kind of power sharing arrangement with the Taliban might seem the unrealistic idea of an academic. But Shahrani is confident that pragmatists in the US administration such as General David Petraeus will be more open to these ideas.