The Washington Post reports that Afghan president Hamid Karzai “plans to seek the removal of up to 50 former Taliban officials from a U.N. terrorism blacklist.” From the Post:
The Afghan government has sought for years to delist former Taliban figures who it says have cut ties with the Islamist movement. But the campaign to cull names from the list, which imposes a travel ban and other restrictions on 137 individuals tied to the Taliban, has taken on renewed urgency in recent weeks as Karzai has begun to press for a political settlement to Afghanistan’s nearly nine-year-old conflict.
Obviously, Karzai believes that delisting former Taliban officials will help to diminish Afghanistan’s insurgency. Indeed, there is a strong tradition within Afghanistan of persuading today’s enemies to switch sides in a conflict. As Thomas Barfield puts it in his excellent book Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, politics in Afghanistan is “less ideological and more personal. It was a world where yesterday’s enemy might become today’s ally, meaning you should take no one for granted.” Indeed, even the ill-fated Muhammad Najibullah was able to entice about 20% of the mujahidin groups who fought against the Soviets to take part in his militia system after the Soviet withdrawal, and entered into ceasefires with a further 40%. Barfield writes: “For those who saw the war in ideological terms, Najibullah’s success at winning support from his old enemies was inexplicable, but he followed a well-known strategy that had proved successful in the past. Like the British-funded amirs before him, he planned to use continuing aid from the Soviet Union to consolidate his power through networks of patronage and by maintaining a powerful military.” This strategy may well have worked — but, of course, the Soviet Union’s collapse removed one of the key assumptions on which Najibullah’s plans were predicated.
But is Karzai’s move a good idea in this particular case? The US is certainly supporting Karzai in his bid to have the names removed: the Post reports that special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke traveled to New York to attempt to move the delisting process forward. On the other hand, UN officials are hesitant, “demanding more evidence that the individuals in question have renounced violence, embraced the new Afghan constitution and severed any links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
One unfortunate aspect of contemporary public discourse is that people’s attitudes often solidify before they have enough information. The Post does not specify which names Karzai is seeking to remove; and readers are likely to be familiar with only a handful of such individuals in any case. Moreover, though the Afghan government claims that the individuals it is seeking to delist have cut ties with the Taliban, it is unclear at this point if Karzai is offering delisting at the front end of negotiations, or if this request is the result of a longer process of talks. Karzai is notoriously impulsive, and has displayed poor judgment in the past. Stephen Grey’s Operation Snake Bite chronicles, for example, how Karzai insisted that the British move forward with a major military operation in Musa Qala in late 2007 after an enigmatic Taliban commander known as Mullah Salaam intimated that he would be willing to switch sides. The bottom line is that Karzai over-promised, considerably, about what Mullah Salaam could bring to the table. It is certainly possible that Karzai’s judgment is better in this situation, but the fact that he is advocating delisting the individuals in question brings little comfort.
This most recent development raises a number of significant questions. Until we have more details, it is difficult to assess the wisdom of the delisting that Karzai and Holbrooke are seeking.
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