The Social Taliban Democrats

by Joshua Foust on 3/24/2009 · 4 comments

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador William Wood has stated his desire to create a political party for the Taliban. No, that’s not a joke. But it does speak to something.

A colleague recently told me that while he was out visiting an area that is majority Pashai — one of Afghanistan’s many “boutique ethnicities” enveloped in far more myth than fact — one of them asked him, “Why don’t you guys try talking to the Taliban?” He said he was a bit puzzled at how to explain that we’ve tried, repeatedly, to do just that, and they’ve refused. While there is a broader IO angle to this—there is no excuse for the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate to be a secret—it might speak to a certain irreconcilability to the whole affair that all this talk about “negotiations” seems to gloss over.

That issue of a political party, too, is problematic. Does anyone really expect the ruse of an America-sponsored Taliban party to, you know, work? Lending some insight into this issue is Anna Larson’s recent report for AREU on Afghanistan’s other political parties. First, a caution:

Political parties are controversial in Afghanistan. Associated with recent conflict and ethnic or military factions, they are not considered a potentially positive force by the public or the GoA. From the Government’s perspective, it is feared that encouraging parties may fuel civil tensions and contribute to the already deteriorating security situation…

It could be claimed that the current environment in Afghanistan is not conducive to the support of parties and that other demands on government and donor resources (such as security) should be prioritised. It could also be argued that even if parties were formally supported, they would be limited by high levels of corruption in government institutions and a weak rule of law, while decreasing security levels would enforce self-censorship and a limited scope for party political activities.

Ms. Larson, however, constructs a pretty powerful argument for why those parties must in fact be strengthened, with the goal of developing them into permanent institutions in Afghan society. From a long term perspective, she is absolutely correct—a stable political and social system is utterly dependent on a reliable method of the public expressing its preferences in the government. The ultimate logic of Dubya’s democratization agenda, in other words, has some merit.

But let’s be honest: adding a Taliban party won’t work right now. Much like the free, open elections we want so much, it is all many years too soon. It is likely the fundamentalists will gain a stable and constructive voice in the government; but the way things are right now, it’s jumping the gun just a little much to think that transparent ploys like a “Conservative Talib Alliance” will not be counterproductive for a good while yet.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Sahar Bagh March 24, 2009 at 2:18 pm

“Boutique Ethnicity,” eh? You make them sound like some of the more touristed hilltribes of Thailand or Bretons in France. Somehow the Pashai don’t strike me as being as pacified or fond of crepes as the other two. Perhaps another term is warranted. Besides, didn’t Tom Johnson originally coin the term “Boutique Ethnicity?”

myra macdonald March 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Josh, you said quite rightly of the ambassador’s comments: “it does speak to something”.

The question to ask is why you say it won’t work “right now”. Are you saying it will work in the future? And if so, how do you put the genie back in the bottle? Or in other words, now that many U.S. officials have suggested reaching out to the Taliban, how do you show that this will happen only if…


David M March 25, 2009 at 9:05 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/25/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Joshua Foust March 26, 2009 at 5:18 am

Sahar, he most certainly did not. The term has been used in other contexts, but not (best I know) Afghanistan, and not by Johnson.

Myra, the COIN people are right that eventually there must be some sort of settlement. The problem I see is that they are jumping the gun, and you’re right that the genie is out. I’m hoping that we haven’t blown our chance… but it’s possible we have.

If that makes sense. I’m rather jetlagged right now, so who knows.

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