An Afghan date to remember

Call it coincidence, but the first thing I found on television after returning from Day Two of THiNK 2013 was Mike Nichol’s wonderful film Charlie Wilson’s War. A biopic about the United States Congressman who led a campaign to arm the mujahideen in Afghanistan in order for them to fight the Soviet invasion, it ends with a quote that perfectly sums up the US’ efforts: “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.”
Wilson’s war did go a long way in ending the Cold War and engineering the collapse of the Soviet Union, but like almost every other case of the US giving guns to a group of people in the hope that they would defeat another group of people, it had adverse side-effects that would destabilise the region for years to come. Once the Soviets packed up and left, the Afghans found themselves in a nation where half the population was under 14. The Americans had spent billions on providing them weapons, but did not invest in schools, hospitals, sanitation, water, none of the institutions needed to rebuild a nation. Predictably, these armed groups began to fight each other, until a group of Islamic students — talibs — came into power. The CIA believed, said former director of the Agency’s counterterrorism centre, Robert Grenier, that the Taliban were “good Muslims” who would finally stabilise the volatile region and build a modern, if theocratic, Afghan state. The rest, of course, is history.
Grenier was speaking at what was the most memorable session of the day, if not the festival itself: ‘An Afghan Date’, a conversation between him and a founding member of the Taliban and former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, moderated by TEHELKA managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. It was pitched as some sort of rapprochement; you expected the two to acknowledge their differences and come to some sort of common ground. After all, it is talking, we have been told on multiple occasions at THiNK, that is the solution.
What we got instead were two interviews between the two speakers and Shoma herself. It began with an analysis of the causes of the US war in 2001. Zaeef, who as ambassador to Pakistan, was central to the efforts to avert war. He mentioned the various options that the Taliban offered the US in the aftermath of 9/11, a continuum of choices ranging from trying Osama within Afghanistan to having him tried in some other Islamic country. The Americans, he said, would accept nothing less than them handing him over to them. This, he said, was unacceptable; one, because Osama was in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power and the notion that the Taliban had created him was a lie, and two, because he was a guest in their country and Pashto hospitality forbids sending a guest to what was, in effect, near certain death. Grenier, on the other hand, defended American transigence, saying that the menu of choices they could offer the Taliban became “very limited after 9/11 for obvious reasons”. The Taliban, he said, were untrustworthy, so any question of compromise was ruled out.
Expectedly, this didn’t go down well with the audience, and thus began perhaps the most confrontational interview THiNK has seen in three editions. Repeatedly, Shoma attacked Grenier for the CIA’s intransigence, for its arrogance in painting the Taliban simply as religious extremists not worthy of dialogue. Grenier didn’t help his case with obstructionist waffle, refusing to directly answer any of the questions, opting instead for vague statements about truth, justice and the American way. It became clear that the US, like most of the ‘civilised’ world, refused to look at the Taliban as rational actors, preferring instead to paint them as fundamentalist fanatics.
It was truly bizarre; the Taliban representative suddenly seemed the more reasonable panelist, drawing applause and cheers with his talk of compromise and change. Of course, there is much fodder for criticism of the Taliban, who for almost seven years, formed one of the most regressive regimes in the world. Women’s rights, for instance, were trampled upon in a manner that was almost unprecedented in the post-medieval world. In the audience’s mind, however, Grenier’s obfuscations and Zaeef’s measured tone meant that the latter left the session seeming almost progressive.
That impression, however, was dispelled somewhat in a second session with Mullah Zaeef on the final day. The session had been called partly because the first, primarily about the geopolitics of the Afghan war, had seemed to some to be too soft on him, and Shoma was able to press Zaeef on the Taliban regime’s record. Zaeef’s answers demonstrated the benefits of talking; that first session, it seemed, had taught him how to obfuscate with élan. Every time he was asked about the regime’s oppression of women, he stuck to his talking points. When the Taliban came to power, he said again and again, it had three priorities: disarming the population, build a united Afghanistan, put in place a national government. Empowering women, it seemed, was simply forgotten. Shoma pressed, essentially asking the same question in different words. Zaeef responded with a vague statement about how they had “budget problems”, before reiterating the three priorities. Further pressing, further waffle. 1994 was a different time, he said. If the Taliban ever came back to power, things would be different. But the situation would be similarly volatile. No, you see, in 1994, we had three priorities… Amidst the noise, though, it was easy to miss the most important thing he said. In 1994, the Taliban, he admitted, was too insular, too unexposed to universal principles of human rights. Mistakes were made, which wouldn’t be repeated in the future. Women form half of the electorate, he said, and for the Taliban to come back to power, they would have to protect women’s rights and liberties. Of course, it’s not too certain how much influence Zaeef has left among the Taliban, but the contrition he showed does hold great hope for the future.