Sunday, 24 October 2010

Winning in Afghanistan

I've been really enjoying Australian Observer's coverage of the Afghanistan debate and other such matters.  One of the things he's highlighted is that while our politicians are talking about defeating the Taliban, the Afghani government, with the support of the US Military, is giving Taliban commanders safe conduct to attend negotiations aimed at ending their insurgency and bringing them into the political system.

It reminded me of something I learnt way back in undergraduate politics.  Democracy is not secured by the will of the majority, but by the consent of the minority. 

You can see this in our recent election dramas.  Despite the rhetoric and posturing, once Labor had secured the votes of enough independents the Liberals accepted that they were once more the Opposition.  They tried to disrupt and block, but only within the bounds of parliamentary procedure.  They kept turning up in Parliament, they debated, they sat down when the speaker told them to.  In other words, they consented to their own defeat, and stayed in the process of government.  Meanwhile the Australian military and police forces did...absolutely nothing, just as they were supposed to.

Now contrast this with the Taliban.  They have far less support than the Liberals, probably even less than the Greens.  They certainly have less support than Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate defeated by Hamid Kharzai in a 2009 election marred by widespread electoral fraud.  The difference is that Abdullah accepted his defeat and lives peacefully, if unhappily, with the resulting regime. 

The Taliban, by contrast, neither participated in those elections, nor accepted their outcome.  Instead, they devote what resources they can to disrupting the governance of the country, lauching terrorist strikes on civilian targets and raids on military ones.  They can't win, at least not while the international forces are there.  Yet while they refuse their consent, ordinary Afghanis can never live in peace, and the government of their country can never be secure. 

Hamid Kharzai knows this, and it seems that the Americans do too, although it wouldn't do for them to admit it too publicly.  The Taliban can't be trusted, their return to power would be a disaster for ordinary Afghanis (especially women) and their fanaticism poses a danger to other countries as well.  But a victory in the war will not be wiping them out militarily.  That will never happen, because they're a guerilla force based in local communities and can just go to ground.  Victory will be gaining their consent to, and participation in, an orderly democratic process, even one as flawed as the one which saw Kharzai elected.  It happened in Ireland despite decades of terrorism and bitterness.  Let's hope and pray it can happen in Afghanistan too.

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