The “P” Word

by Joshua Foust on 3/1/2011 · 1 comment

Naheed Mustafa is a Canadian freelance broadcast and print journalist.

I don’t take the word “propaganda” lightly. Having been accused at times of being a propagandist for various mutually exclusive causes or ideas, I recognize that hurling that insult is a way to undermine personal credibility. So imagine my surprise when Wazhma Frogh, an ostensible Afghan academic, lobbed the p-word at a study published by the Center On International Cooperation at New York University.

“Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The core of Success in Afghanistan” is a report (pdf) based on primary source research by Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, both of whom are widely regarded as credible voices on Afghanistan.

The purpose of this post is not to offer up a defense of either Alex or Felix personally. They’re adults, they can defend themselves. My comments are specifically a response to a sentiment that is embodied in Ms. Frogh’s post “Sorry…We misunderstood you!” It’s the idea that any attempt to understand the Taliban is to somehow become an apologist for the movement.

Ms. Frogh asserts the report is nothing new but simply one more piece of propaganda meant to unduly influence Americans and give them an easy out with respect to withdrawing. In addition, the report somehow serves in helping the international community slough off its duty to help create an accountable and effective mechanism for transition

She also wonders what difference the report’s analysis makes to those who died on 9/11; the seven-year-old boy executed in Helmand and hung from a tree; or the 700 Afghan children killed in various violent incidents in 2010 alone. These deaths are not seen as distinct, attributable to specific circumstances – death by terror is death by terror is death by terror.

She says there’s been no attempt to understand the Taliban in light of outside influence peddlers. But the report makes several mentions of Pakistan’s influence in both facilitating and maintaining the Taliban as well as opportunities lost by the U.S. in reaching an understanding with the Taliban leadership long before the situation became so violent.

The core issue, for me, is how does one arrive at a solution if one is not “allowed” to parse out the problem? What difference, Ms. Frogh and others ask, does it make if al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the same or different? One terrorist is as bad as the next. But it’s precisely that kind of reductive thinking that’s led us down a path where the west finds itself in year 10 of a war in a country where people have had almost no peace for decades.

The basic issue with refusing to sift through the motivations and intentions of the various parties to the Afghan war is if you don’t identify the problem, you come up with the wrong solution.

If the international community (read the U.S.) is wrongly determined to include the Taliban as part of al-Qaeda and, so, employ an approach determined by the principle that “we don’t deal with terrorists” then any tactics and strategies it employs will not result in gain. If the ultimate goal in Afghanistan is long-term peace then how is that goal achieved by misunderstanding the players? And by misunderstanding the players how do you move forward?

Any mention of peace invariably brings the discussion to negotiation and possible reconciliation. But the refrain is the Taliban is an illegitimate party to negotiations and longer-term governance in Afghanistan. If they are, then why is the existing government acceptable? If the Taliban are murderous hordes, then how is the existing government not made up of the same kind of killers and purveyors of terror?

This question of who is in a legitimate position to negotiate for an end to the fighting is central to whether Afghans will accept the outcome or see it just one more example of solutions foisted on them without their consent. Parsing out motivations and commitments is part of the process of determining who sits at the table. You can’t end a war if you don’t talk to those who are fighting.

Abhorrence of the Taliban is understandable and there is absolutely a genuine fear of a return to a time of obscurantism when women were mere spectators of their own lives. I have no illusions about the brutality of the Taliban regime but it serves no purpose to label serious inquiry propaganda especially by those who are in a position to influence discourse. The fighting needs to end but that can only happen if the talking begins.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. 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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{ 1 comment }

Johny Matrix March 2, 2011 at 12:47 am

In many ways I came to respect hard core LET / HIG members more than a great deal of individuals I knew back home…I would be in extreme favor of their taking leadership/control of certain districts. My problem is that I cannot, with any confidence at all, say that they will not reconstruct their prior relationship with AQ, in fact all my (notice I say ‘my’ because this is ‘my’ experience) data points towards this end result because the connection is already there. I would be very surprised if at any time there was not an Arab liason connected to a Taliban sub-commander (valley level). He may not be AQ but he sure does know somebody who knows somebody. There may be only 150 AQ commanders/operatives in AFG, but that’s more than enough.

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