Today’s news lifts us above the domestic politics and point-scoring which have characterised the closing days of Australia’s 43rd Federal Parliament and the unrelenting negativity of much of our domestic media. Instead, we focus on a very significant development on the international front.
At breakfast yesterday, the serious media, including the ABC’s Radio National, led with the announcement from President Obama, as the latest G8 meeting in Northern Ireland drew to a close, that the US would re-enter direct talks with the Taliban. Earlier attempts by the two opposing sides to sit down and discussAfghanistanbroke down in early 2012.
These new talks, to be held in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban has just opened an embassy, could start as early as today. Although President Obama was at pains to emphasise that these talks are only the first step in what will be a long road, they could mark a significant departure from previous US and Western foreign policy. However, as if to underline the huge challenges which confront these talks, yesterday a Taliban attack in Afghanistan killed four US soldiers.
President Obama’s announcement coincides with the handover of control, by the NATO-led forces, to the Afghan National Army of the last 90 districts in Afghanistan, of which there are approximately 400. This is significant for several reasons. Firstly, that it’s the first time since the late 1970’s and the Russian occupation, that the nation’s security has been totally the responsibility of Afghan forces and, secondly, that it is a prerequisite, from the Taliban, for any talks with their opponents.
One’s initial reaction could well be disbelief. The US is preparing to sit down with its avowed enemy. The Taliban, fanatical Islamists, synonymous with some of the worst human rights violations of recent years, fellow travellers with Al–Qaeda and responsible for a particularly cruel and repressive period of rule in Afghanistan. Wasn’t the Taliban the reason for the original deployment by the west, before President Bush Jr lost the plot and shifted the US’s focus to Iraq and its non-existent weapons of mass destruction?
No, it seems President Obama is serious and the Afghan government, led by President Karzai, was also, until a last minute change of mind, sending an official delegation to Doha to observe these initial talks. President Karzai has also announced that he would like to see the talks moved immediately to Kabul and conducted directly between his government and the Taliban.
Western powers, and especially theUS, are not in the habit of sitting down at the same table as their sworn enemies, unless the latter have capitulated. This is certainly not the case with the Taliban. But President Karzai has invited the Taliban, subject to certain conditions, to contest the next national election in June 2014.
For Australians, President Obama’s announcement should be of considerable relevance. Afghanistan is now our country’s longest running foreign military engagement; longer than WWI or WWII, Korea or even Vietnam. We have paid dearly in blood, (39 killed and hundreds injured, not to mention the long term and immeasurable psychological damage to our returning military personnel) and treasure. The total monetary cost of our long term involvement has never been disclosed.
It would be comforting to know that, when our troops, along with most of the other NATO-led forces, finally depart from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, we have achieved something worthwhile and enduring. That even if we haven’t managed to implant a healthy democratic state in this extremely poor, historically divided and war-ravaged country, we have at least improved the lot of the Afghan people, particularly the women and children.
What do you think? Should the US be discussing the future of Afghanistan in direct talks with the Taliban? Given its track record, can the Taliban be trusted? Should Australia have deployed troops to Afghanistan and have we achieved any long term benefit?