KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A strategy of talking to the Taliban – once ridiculed as “naive” by the Conservative government in Canada – is being test driven in the Kandahar countryside, much to the relief of some Afghans including one of the area’s biggest power brokers.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of Afghanistan’s president, said something needs to be done to stop “the madness” of the deadly insurgency.
Canadian troops in Afghanistan are reported reaching out to low-and mid-level insurgents, encouraging them through local villagers to sit down with Afghan authorities and perhaps even NATO forces.
“I absolutely support the Canadian decision,” Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council, told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday.
“It’s a very wise and proper decision. There are people (with whom) we can talk and reason.”
“There would be so many Taliban willing to come home. Nobody supports this madness; this killing of innocent people; the killing of women and children. They are not happy with it, we know this.”
Troops in the field are reported being encouraged to gently promote the idea of local negotiations among villages in the far-flung desert and mountain creases.
Kai Eide, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan visiting Ottawa Thursday, said he’s not aware of any formal talks with the Taliban. “There’s no process of that nature under way.”
Eide said it’s important to reach out, but any discussions must be led by the Afghan government, directed by politicians – not soldiers – and must be based on the Afghan constitution.
Canadian cabinet ministers were careful to point out Canada is not in any direct talks with the Taliban.
“We’re going to work with the Afghans in a democratic way, but we are not involved in any direct discussions with Taliban terrorists,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay told reporters in Ottawa.
“We don’t do that, we will not do that. We will work on national reconciliation, reconstruction development, all of those things with sovereign decisions made by the Afghanistan government,” MacKay said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda were also asked about it. Both said Ottawa supports the Afghan government’s position, which is that Kabul is willing to talk to people who respect the Afghan constitution and renounce violence.
The New Democrats, staunch opponents of the war, had suggested almost two years ago that peace talks be initiated with the Taliban. The call prompted MacKay – who was at Foreign Affairs at the time – to call the idea “naive.” Conservative commentators christened NDP Leader Jack Layton as “Taliban Jack.”
President Hamid Karzai has since called for peace talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but militants have insisted foreign forces must leave first and that the country adhere more strictly to Islamic law.
One insurgent commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, suggested rewriting the country’s constitution – a notion the president’s younger brother dismissed as a non-starter.
But Ahmed Wali Karzai said it’s imperative that NATO allies get behind the peace bid in order to preserve the Afghan government’s credibility.
The United States and Canada have been alone among NATO allies in southern Afghanistan in their refusal to talk with the militants.
The British brokered a ceasefire with the Taliban in the hotly contested Musa Quala region of Helmand Province, a deal that ultimately fell apart.
Negotiation through the local governor is a cornerstone of the Dutch strategy in Urzugan province.
As recently as last fall, Canadian military commanders saw no sense in trying to reason with militants and preferred to use the cash incentives of local make-work programs to entice low-level Taliban to refrain from participating in the insurgency.
“I don’t talk to the Taliban,” said Brig.-Gen. Guy Laroche, Canada’s top commander in Afghanistan.
The Kabul government has tried to convince militants to put down their arms through its so-called Peace Through Strength program, but many Afghans have complained that it has suffered because of a lack of funding and international support. As long as they promise to renounce violence, hard-liners are welcomed back into society.
The younger Karzai warned that time is running out and pointed to last weekend’s assassination attempt on his brother. Afghan authorities said that the attack by gunman, which killed three people including a legislator, was hatched in Pakistan.
Ahmed Wali Karzai watched the event live on television and said his heart sank when there was gunfire, explosions and suddenly the coverage ended.
He rushed to the telephone, but it took several attempts to get through. When his brother finally came on the line, the calmness in Hamid Karzai’s voice reassured him.
“He was very upset, especially about the loss of life, but … he was in complete control,” said the younger Karzai, who spoke in English – he once lived in Chicago.
Hamid Karzai plans to run for another term as president, but his brother said he often worries about another assassination attempt.
Their father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was murdered by Taliban gunmen on a motorcycle in Quetta, Pakistan, in July 1999.
“After my father was assassinated, we always knew that (Hamid) was next and we would receive lots of news daily that people were coming to kill him. But my big problem was I could never stop him or make him listen to me when I sometimes said: ‘It’s not worth it’.”