The Illusion of Realism

Recently Time published a special issue on Afghanistan that highlighted the human cost of the Taliban. Its front cover displayed a picture of a woman who’d had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban for running from domestic violence. The response was predictable even by the standards of an intellectual discourse that gets more predictable by the day. The academic Priyamvada Gopal began her response with the classic and chilling words ‘Misogynic violence is unacceptable. But…’ before dismissing the Time article as ‘bedtime stories’.

‘The system,’ James Fergusson wrote, ‘is hard and brutal, but it works.’ He reminded Guardian readers that ‘we have no right to be shrill and it will do no good to dictate’ and also that it ‘might help if we understood the Taliban better.’ Commenting on the murder of Bibi Sanubar, killed by the Taliban for being pregnant, he argues that her execution was an anomaly and the proper punishment by the Afghan courts would be a mere stoning. Social change in Afghanistan must be gradual and Fergusson is ‘certain, after 14 years of encounters with the Taliban, that they are not beyond redemption.’ Give them another 14 years of dominating the country and perhaps things may improve. Perhaps.

It’s fair to say that the war in its ninth year does not enjoy universal public support. Conservatives were gung-ho at first but began to flag when it became apparent that we weren’t going to be home by Christmas 2001. Like sometime Shiraz commenter Laban, they don’t see the point of risking the bones of a single Lancashire grenadier just so that little Nooria can go to school. The antiwar left has the same contempt for the human rights of Afghans but conceals it with sub-Chomsky rhetoric – and let’s not forget that some antiwar activists actually support the Taliban.

The great powers are now talking deal with the Taliban. It’s likely that the war will end in the same kind of imperial carve up which would have disgusted radicals of earlier generations, but won’t raise a fucking eyebrow today. 

Opponents of the war, whether they are Pashtun experts or keyboard pacifists, tend to speak in terms of realism and as if they are intimate with the Afghan national psyche. NATO’s few supporters are increasingly portrayed as naive and wild eyed idealists trying to impose new-fangled Enlightenment concepts on a land they barely know. If they talk about Afghans at all, the antiwar consensus takers say that they will be best served under a deal with the Taliban.

Via Norm, Washington director of Human Rights Watch Tom Malinowski punctures the illusion of realism and explains how a deal with the fascists would not only be grotesquely immoral but catastrophic in geopolitical terms. Read the whole thing.

The Taliban is not just another warlord militia fighting for a piece of the action; it is an ideological movement whose leaders believe they were right to plunge Afghanistan into darkness when they ruled in the 1990s. In many parts of the country where they hold sway, they continue to kill women who go to school, work or participate in the political process, as well as the men who support them. If a Taliban provincial shadow governor with such a history were made the real governor of a province, the ‘night letters’ the Taliban now delivers to threaten women would become daytime edicts.

Perhaps that should not be enough to determine America’s strategy for ending the war. But before resigning ourselves to compromising our principles for peace, we must ask: Would such a trade-off bring the security it promises? This is where the realist argument collapses.

The same argument, after all, was made by Pakistan when it negotiated its 2008 settlement with the Taliban, giving it control of Swat Valley in exchange for pledges to recognize the writ of the central government and let women work without fear. The Taliban broke those promises; Pakistanis were horrified by images of women being whipped and schools being torched. Within months, the Pakistani army launched a massive military operation to retake what it had given away.

Much the same happened when Colombia ceded territory to the FARC insurgent group in 1999 (the FARC continued its kidnappings and killings, and war resumed); when Angola brought the UNITA party of brutal warlord Jonas Savimbi into its government in 1994 (the deal collapsed, and UNITA went back to fighting); when the international community helped broker a peace deal in Sierra Leone in 1999 that gave Foday Sankoh’s vicious rebel group a share of power (Sankoh’s forces continued to conduct attacks until a British intervention restored order). Each time we were shocked to learn that abusive, predatory movements, when given power, continue to behave in abusive, predatory ways.

The same is likely to happen in Afghanistan if those Taliban leaders who have committed the worst atrocities are given control over the communities they terrorized. Images of abuses against women are likely to be broadcast around the world, raising the painful question of whether this is what foreign and Afghan troops sacrificed for. There could be retribution against perceived U.S. and government collaborators, and people fleeing areas where insurgents are given power. Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities (who together constitute a majority) are especially fearful of a deal that increases the Taliban’s influence; many Afghans believe that a hasty process could lead to a broader civil war.

None of these appalling consequences would speed a U.S. withdrawal. Quite the opposite. And it is not realism, but a leap of faith born of desperation, to think they could be avoided simply by requiring ‘reconciling’ Taliban forces to renounce violence and support Afghanistan’s constitution.

Some suspect that talking about women’s rights is a pretext for keeping the United States in Afghanistan forever (ironically, the part of President Obama’s constituency that would normally be most concerned about defending women in Afghanistan is also the part most wary of the U.S. commitment there). But whether one believes in Gen. David Petraeus’s strategy of counterinsurgency for as long as it takes, or a more limited counterterrorism mission with fewer troops, there is no need for hasty deals that give the Taliban a share of power.

For if you try to settle the conflict in a way that sacrifices human rights in the name of peace, you will end up with neither.

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