There is a line between President Bush's final SOTU address in January 2008 and today's 70-nation summit in London on whether to buy off, I mean "reintegrate," the Taliban with $100 million per year for 15 years (anyway), if Hamid Karzai (above with Gordon Brown) has his way. A friend, writing in, dubs the proposal TARP -- Taliban Assistance Restitution Program.
In his culminatingly empty SOTU, Prez Bush said that "we are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century" without ever defining the ideology of the struggle. Didn't even give a hint. So much for the War President, exiting the stage with a whisper. I wrote:
Such vagueness marked his seventh and final annual address as strangely vacuous. Writing at the Counterterrorism Blog, Andrew Cochran elaborated on this theme, contrasting the language of this week's address with those of the past. In 2007, he wrote, Bush highlighted the aggression of "Sunni extremists" and "Shia extremists." In 2006, he warned against "radical Islam." In 2008, the president merely decried "assassins," "bombs," "extremists" and "terrorists." Why the fuzzy focus? Why declare a "defining ideological struggle" without defining the ideologies involved?
Among the principles Bush said we hold dear, we would undoubtedly include the freedom of religion. Going back to Bush's terminology, which "terrorists" oppose this freedom? One answer is Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which the president pointed out we are still fighting in Afghanistan. But so, recent events confirm, does Afghanistan itself oppose religious freedom, which the president didn't mention at all.
Or, rather, he mentioned Afghanistan, but simply as a "young democracy" where, thanks to the war on jihadists waged by the United States and its allies, the Afghan people "are looking to the future with new hope." Not Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, of course. Kaambakhsh is the 23-year-old journalist sentenced to death last month by an Afghan court for blasphemy. His future is hardly hopeful, especially since Afghanistan's senate this week endorsed his death sentence. (The senate's statement, Agence France-Presse reports, was signed by senate leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, "a close ally of President Hamid Karzai.")
Bush couldn't mention the Kaambakhsh case without spoiling the presidential narrative. What kind of "young democracy" infused with "new hope" sentences a citizen to death for "insulting Islam"? The answer is a democracy that enshrines Islamic law (Sharia). But confronting the role of Sharia in Islamic societies -- including those propped up by the U.S. military -- calls into question the strategy of the "war on terror" itself. After all, we're supposed to fight "terrorists" on behalf of peoples who, on liberation, are expected to join us in our "defining ideological struggle" to fight "terrorists." But how do we handle mounting evidence that the peoples we have assisted find themselves in greater sympathy with the Islamic ideology driving the "terrorists" than with our own?
The answer is we don't. We officially and institutionally forget about the whole thing. If Bush flinched at defining the struggle he mobilized American armies to fight with similarly vague strategies, the 70-country Afghanistan summit in London is similarly oblivious. Which leads us directly to this Wednesday story from the Guardian:
NATO's new top civilian representative in Afghanistan has warned that a lasting peace will require talking to some "pretty unsavoury characters" with appalling human rights records, and bringing them within the Afghan political system.
Mark Sedwill, who was – until yesterday – Britain's ambassador to Kabul, was speaking before tomorrow's London conference, at which much of the focus will be on the signals President Hamid Karzai sends to the Taliban in his opening remarks.
The Afghan leader is expected to deal principally with a plan to reintegrate Taliban footsoldiers through internationally funded development projects, but Karzai's speech will also be keenly watched for any peace overtures towards the leadership of the insurgency. British and US officials say any serious talk of reconciliation with Taliban leaders is premature but Sedwill said that ultimately such "hard choices" have to be made.
"If we are going to bring conflicts like Afghanistan to an end … that means some pretty unsavoury characters are going to have to be brought within the system," Sedwill said, at London's Frontline Club. "Because if you don't bring them within the system in some way … you risk whatever fragile peace you build falling apart."
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em together.
Sedwill, named yesterday as Nato's special civilian representative in Kabul, said refusing to deal with Taliban leaders because of their past would be hypocritical when there were warlords responsible for "appalling abuses" in the government camp.
And similarly appalling sharia practices (think Kambakhsh).
It is just worth remembering that when we talk about reconciliation with the Taliban. We have got to be careful not to be making hypocritical moral judgements and saying one group are absolutely beyond the pale because of the way they conducted themselves while another group of people are in the tent despite the way they conducted themselves."
This is the problem with having gotten into the tent with these people in the first place.
Speaking to the Guardian on the eve of the conference, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, said Pakistan was uniquely placed to help talks between the western alliance and the Taliban.
Said the spider to the fly.
"Pakistan is perhaps better placed than any other country in the world to support Afghan reintegration and reconciliation. Why? We speak the same language, we have common tribes, a common religion, we have a commonality of history, culture and tradition," he said. "But it [Pakistani mediation] depends on whether we are asked to do so. If asked, the government of Pakistan would be happy to facilitate."
Yesterday, in what was widely seen as an attempt to raise the incentives for defection or peace negotiations, and on President Karzai's request, the UN removed the names of five former Taliban officials who have left the insurgency from a sanctions list that subjected them to travel bans and the freezing of their assets. The US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, welcomed the move yesterday, calling it "a long overdue step".
"That list … should be re-examined and scrubbed down. There are people on it who are dead. There are people on it who shouldn't be on it," Holbrooke said.
The prospect of a deal being made with Taliban commanders has alarmed Afghan human rights groups and women's organisations, who are concerned that the gains since the fall of Taliban could be negotiated away behind closed doors.
Shinkai Karokhail, a woman MP from Kabul, said yesterday: "We really fear that this could happen in secret dialogue or contacts. We have met President Karzai and he has verbally promised us that those who do not respect the constitution will not be part of our government. Still, we want an international guarantee the government will not make these deals in secret."
Um, the US-midwifed, Afghan constitution enshrines sharia law above all. So goodbye to what these ladies like to think of as "human rights."
Holbrooke said women's rights would be one of the international community's "red lines" in any future peace negotiations with the Taliban. He also played down the prospect of imminent talks with the Taliban leadership, saying the focus of the Lancaster House conference would be the Taliban rank and file who, Holbrooke argued, were mostly not driven by the ideology of Taliban or al-Qaida leaders.
Glad Holbrooke is in the know.
Meanwhile, young Kambakhsh got a lucky break: His life sentence for blasphemy against Islam was commuted to 20 years in an Afghan jail.