It was shortly after the big Y2K scare that I was in Zimbabwe. I went to visit the ruins just south of Masivingo. A Zimbabwean guide walked with me through the low-cut grass, up the nearby escarpment where the long-forgotten king had resided, and to the great Zimbabwe wall. He explained the former kingdom, and concepts such as how the rocks were broken with fire and water in order to build the impressive towering wall.
During a break in the tour, as we sat on a jutting rock that overlooked the valley below, I asked him what he though of Robert Mugabe.
"We are at peace," he said, " and I am happy for that, so I support Mugabe."
After having read the BBC and other foreign newspapers calling Mugabe a crazed tyrant, the young man's answer surprised me. While this was in Zimbabwe, he could just as easily have been an Afghanistan guide in the very same year, supporting the Taliban.
I blogged some time ago about Harper's mistakes in Afghanistan.
Some time before that, it was Jack Layton who said success in Afghanistan meant bringing the Taliban on board. Layton was immediately lambasted by Stephen Harper, called Taliban Jack, an extremist sympathizer, and every other name in the book.
So I find it serendipitous that now, Stephen Harper admits the Taliban can't be beaten. The Taliban can't be beaten, under fair international rules anyhow, for many reasons: They're hard to find and have safe havens just across the border in Pakistan; they can create converts faster than we can destroy them; and perhaps most importantly, they provide an alternative that no matter how many downfalls it has, has upsides too.
The first upside is that, under the Taliban, Afghanistan saw it's first 'relatively' peaceful times in memory. The Taliban's extreme religious beliefs and archaic interpretations of Islam also brought extreme justice. While women were downtrodden, justice was archaic, and social freedoms abysmal, the archaic justice kept people in line, and that meant peace.
The allied alternative presents social freedoms, women's rights, democracy, generous rebuilding programs and a theoretically fairer justice system. On the downside, as long as the Taliban lurk in the shadows blowing things up, targeting civilians, and causing havoc, we can't provide the one thing they could, peace.
But the allied alternative fails in other ways. Leniency led to corruption, which has replaced fear of reprisal that existed under the Taliban. Essentially, people are a lot less willing to steal when the last guy who got caught had his right hand chopped off.
I've always believed that in order to defeat the Taliban, the allied forces had to present a better alternative and win over Afghanistan ideologically. Having starting off with a war, they were on the back foot to begin with. Meanwhile, the Taliban saw it in their best interests to cause chaos at every opportunity because that meant, at the very least, the allied forces couldn't provide peace, which was the one thing the Taliban had provided.
So do the allies need to bring the Taliban on board?
It is an unpleasant prospect. It was Taliban support of Osama Bin Laden that got them invaded in the first place, and deservedly so. Their ideology is the opposite of what many Western ideals preach. Among their many unconscionable crimes against humanity, they target girls seeking education, and civilians in crowded places.
My biggest fear, if forced to deal with the Taliban, is their unwavering ideology. The progresses we have made could be turned back. Worst of all, we'd be giving into people who actively supported attacking us.
I fear the Taliban are no longer a political force, but an ideologically driven force bent on purging Western influences and the Western invasion. I fear negotiation isn't in their interest, purging Muslim lands of Western influence and setting up a Bin-Laden inspired Islamic Republic complete with violent ideologies is. They hate us and everything we stand for, and vice versa. At worst, this means that the trust isn't their to even open negotiations. At best, it means we're in for some tough concessions.