They agreed on most things, but the question of whether to negotiate with the Taliban split a high-profile panel down the middle at the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend.
The North American half of the Afghanistan debate – former Canadian Forces General Rick Hillier and 2008 U.S. presidential candidate John McCain – said NATO is in no position to barter with Taliban forces.
That contrasted greatly with two speakers living in the region.
“It’s essential,” said Harvard researcher and Afghan resident Michael Semple of bringing the Taliban to the table.
“It’s not the only thing that’s going to deliver peace and stability in Afghanistan, but it’s a very important part of it.”
Semple said the black-and-white view of the Taliban is misinformed. He spoke about a more rational, pragmatic faction of the organization that must become part of a sustained peace.
Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times, said it is al Qaeda that poses the risk of turning Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists.
“You have to pry apart al Qaeda from the Afghan Taliban, and you have to find accommodation with the Afghan Taliban in times to come,” he said.
That view was flat-out rejected by Hillier.
“I cannot comprehend what we would discuss,” he said. “I mean, would we hand over the women to them so they could beat them or brutalize them?” he said to reporters after the debate.
Hillier said western forces need to target individuals within the Taliban and lure them away from the group. Sen. McCain said the Taliban would never negotiate seriously with NATO forces as long as they feel they are winning.
All four speakers at the Westin Hotel, where the conference is taking place, agreed on the importance of defeating the insurgency, and said setting a deadline for withdrawal allows the Taliban to simply wait out Western armies.