Lawrence Martin joins growing consensus for diplomacy in Afghanistan

As we have been pointing out – there is a growing consensus that there will only be a diplomatic end to the war in Afghanistan – not a military one. Here is the latest analysis from Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin:

On war, a little diplomacy couldn’t hurt
Peace talks with the Taliban? Not if you’re waiting for a push from Canada

LAWRENCE MARTIN
May 10, 2007

News reports out of Kabul say the Afghan senate has backed proposals to hold negotiations with the resurgent Taliban to end the bloodshed in Afghanistan. According to the proposals, Western coalition troops should halt their search and destroy missions against Taliban fighters and other militants.

Tuesday’s senate decision was, in part, motivated by escalating discontent over civilian casualties at the hands of foreign forces. Yesterday, right on the heels of the vote, 21 more civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes.

As could be predicted, the Afghan diplomatic push got a ho-hum reception in Canada. Not one party leader in Question Period picked up on it. Although impetus for negotiations with the Taliban is gaining in many quarters – even among some U.S. Republicans – don’t look to Ottawa. Canada used to lead the way on such peace initiatives; now we take a back seat.

The Liberals, once our foremost advocates of the diplomatic solution, have not been heard. The governing Conservatives, so enamoured of people in uniform, are not terribly interested. It is left to the NDP’s Jack Layton to carry the banner of negotiation and diplomacy. And for his troubles, he is derided as “Taliban Jack.”
In Afghanistan, as countless experts have pointed out, there are diplomatic openings. Just this week, a former top Taliban official, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said a settlement with President Hamid Karzai’s government is possible. The Taliban are not monolithic: There are moderate elements, radical elements and elements that aren’t even Taliban. Diplomacy holds out the possibility of at least bringing moderates on board while isolating the extremists. And diplomacy comes at little cost: If it’s tried and fails, it’s back to battlefield, where you were anyway.

But many of our leaders are more inclined to the school of thought of our top soldier, General Rick Hillier. You don’t negotiate with the enemy. You don’t talk to scumbags. You impose military solutions and let the goodwill – we can see this in Iraq – flow from there.

Lessons of history, it goes without saying, are not heeded. Peace with the Irish Republican Army came only after negotiations – with the terrorists. No one thought you could negotiate a peace with the Soviet evil empire. It happened.

If our leaders need more examples, they could ask Peggy Mason, a former disarmament ambassador to the United Nations who’s now with the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute. She drew up a list of civil wars or regional conflicts where people finally awoke from the killing and got to the bargaining table. “Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Sudan. Oh yes, and even Bosnia [Dayton accords].”

You have a choice: You can get to the table early, or you can let the years of killing stack up.

In Kabul, the senate action comes as the war, like so many of those other conflicts, takes on a no-end-in-sight look. The Afghan senate usually works closely with Mr. Karzai, and it’s hoped the President will pick up on its lead this time. In the past, Mr. Karzai has made some unsuccessful attempts to reach out to the Taliban. But diplomacy rarely works with the first tries. In Afghanistan, many feel that the local attempts must be replaced by a comprehensive negotiation under United Nations leadership that goes beyond the internal political process and encompasses neighbouring countries.

A push from Canada wouldn’t hurt. But we’ve been too caught up in our new tough-guy role. Asked about Afghanistan in the House of Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said for roughly the 200th time that the opposition, which supports our troops, should support our troops. His party, with its vision of Canada more as a warrior than a peace broker, could hardly have been expected to push the diplomacy channels.

But how are we to understand the party of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chr├ętien not shouting from the rooftops, not angling for diplomatic solutions, not trying to build the basis for them – not even when presented with openings?

In turning away from statecraft, they forget their own history, as well as the history of war.

lmartin@globeandmail.com

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