Don’t Negotiate With the Taliban: Afghanistan is making progress despite its president.

NOVEMBER 18, 2008

Khost Province, Afghanistan

The British have been muttering in recent weeks about talking with the Taliban to end the Afghan insurgency. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai has recently offered amnesty to Taliban leader Mullah Omar if he would return to Afghanistan for peace talks. Mr. Karzai said that if foreign nations disapproved they could either withdraw their troops or remove him (the latter being the best suggestion he has had in a long time). So the terrible idea of talks with the Taliban has penetrated American military and political circles, part of a new pessimism that threatens to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

“The security situation is better than it was when the 82nd Airborne left in April. I am satisfied.” So says Haji Doulat, the 63-year-old subgovernor of Mandozai, one of the 12 districts of Khost Province. He has worked hard with American troops to develop this rural farming community of 120,000.

Khost is one of the frontline provinces in the war on terror. It shares a 112 mile border with some of the most lawless areas of Pakistan. And its Zadran tribe counts as a member the insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who regularly stages attacks on Coalition forces from across the border. The first two girls admitted to Khost’s university this fall are so fearful of reprisals that they study at home and go to the campus only for exams. But Khost is also one of the places where we are winning the war against the Taliban, if slowly and expensively.

Since 2007, the U.S. commanders in Khost have dispersed their fighters among the province’s districts to live in force-protection facilities alongside the subgovernors like Mr. Doulat and the Afghan National Police. These troops and the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team, a civil-military partnership, use their Commander’s Emergency Response Program Funds to improve Afghans’ lives.

In 2002, there were 13 schools in this province of a million people. Now there are 205, of which 53 were built by the U.S. and 30 by other donors including NGOs, the World Bank and foreign governments. U.S. troops are building 25 more now. Before the invasion not a single girl went to school in all of Khost Province. In 2002 approximately 3,000 attended school. This year, 8,000 girls in Mandozai District alone were in school, and 50,047 attended in all of Khost.

The economy in Mandozai, as in other districts of Khost, has boomed thanks to the hardtop roads financed by the U.S. This week, Mr. Doulat sent men to take a first-ever survey of all the shops in his district with a view of increasing tax rolls and jumpstarting a small bazaar area. There were 61 shops in one half of Mandozai, most with more than 50,000 afghanis ($1,000) in capital. At the beginning of 2007, there were only about 15 shops in all of Mandozai bazaar. (There are 11,300 shops in the city of Khost, the provincial capital, with 2,000 added in the past year, according to Kiramert Khan, the head of the shopkeepers’ union.)

Good governance is an essential part of progress. Mr. Doulat is considered the best of Khost’s subgovernors by U.S. commanders. On a national level, much that’s gone wrong is the fault of Mr. Karzai’s wavering and often incompetent government.

This is why Mr. Karzai has been calling for talks with the Taliban and the ruthless war criminal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — who in his Kabul University days splashed acid on the faces of unveiled female students — for a couple of years now. Exaggerating the potency of the insurgents is a way of excusing his own failures. It may also help him retain the support of hard-line Pashtun nationalists, nearly his only constituency now.

American commanders have nothing to cover up. In the 14 eastern provinces they command, progress is obvious. But talking with the Taliban will send the wrong message to everyone, from the feckless Mr. Karzai to energetic, courageous Afghans like Mr. Doulat to the little girls going to school for the first time.

Ahmad Nadar Nadary, commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, is about to publish a 30-page report on Taliban atrocities, including about 700 Afghan civilians murdered between June 2007 and July 2008. (Look for it on One recent attack came on Oct. 30, when the Taliban attacked Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture. Three insurgents murdered a policeman and four civilians. The people who commit such killings are criminals who should be punished.

Apart from the ethics of talking with the Taliban, it would also be a fool’s errand. If they weren’t losing, they would have no interest in dialogue. Those who’ve been killing their own countrymen for the past few years aren’t interested in the democratic process. Any Taliban who is interested is already in the government. (About 30%-40% of Afghan Parliament’s Lower House are religious fundamentalists.)

Victory in Afghanistan — defined as the time when we can pack up and leave Afghans to govern and defend their own country — will come. It will take patience, however. After meeting with Mr. Doulat, I visited a girls’ school in neighboring Tani District and stepped into a first-grade class with about 20 girls. None of them had a mother who was literate. They were being taught by an ancient, bearded, good-hearted man. I asked him who the top girl in the class was, and he pulled skinny, seven-year-old Meena to her feet. Her father is a laborer, and her clothes were ragged. If her illiterate parents have enough faith in the future that they send her to school, against cultural norms, we must not betray them or her.

An Afghanistan that officially acknowledges Taliban ideology by talking to Taliban leaders about their grievances and concerns offers nothing for its Meenas.

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