Scholar Advises Obama To Talk To The Taliban

Read Azeem Ibrahim's Piece In The Los Angeles Times, "Afghanistan's Way Forward Must Include The Taliban"

Research scholar and Yale World Fellow Azeem Ibrahim argues that to win the war, the U.S. must engage with the Taliban. Neal Conan talks with Ibrahim about why working with the Taliban is not as counter-intuitive as it may seem.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, from the politics of Afghanistan to politics in Afghanistan, and an argument that there can be no way ahead there unless the Taliban gets a share of political power.

In an op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times, scholar Azeem Ibrahim maintains that most Taliban are ordinary Afghans, the very people on whom success there will depend. While he excludes some hardcore elements, he believes the U.S., NATO and the Karzai government must now allow moderate Taliban insurgents into the political process.

Given the brutal record of the past, are you suspicious of moderate Taliban? Would opening the door to the Taliban mean closing the door to women's rights? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School, and currently a world fellow at Yale. And he joins us from a studio on the campus there in New Haven. Thanks very much for being on the program today.

Mr. AZEEM IBRAHIM (Research Scholar, Harvard's Kennedy School International Security Program): Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And why should moderate Taliban - must they be, included in the political solution for Afghanistan?

Mr. IBRAHIM: You know, I have to give credit to the president for his recent announcement of considering dialogue with the elements of the Taliban who have renounced violence. I mean, he said that we would support efforts by those, you know, that have abandoned violence and respect human rights.

But I certainly feel that is a step in the right direction, but I also feel that is happening far too slow. I simply do not believe that there's any solution to the Afghan problem. One of the things we really have to do is we have to get our definitions correct. When we're referring to the Taliban, you know, that's a very, very broad definition.

Ninety percent of the Taliban are actually not the extremists that we imagine them to be. Ninety percent of them actually are just pragmatic opportunists who are - who have joined the faith simply because they're motivated by a combination of money and - to rid their country of the foreigners. Ten percent of them are the extremist elements that are led by the cohort of the likes of Mullah Omar. And against those elements, unfortunately, we have to say there is no other option. But 90 percent of them are just not extremists at all.

An average Afghan national security personnel gets paid $100 a month, whereas the Taliban are offering $400 a month for youngsters to come and join the fight with them. So I think that the best way forward is we have to make a distinction between those extreme elements that are actually there with the fundamentalist extremist ideologies and those that are really just pragmatic opportunists.

CONAN: And so, is the solution to offer those young men $500 a month and they will switch sides?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah. Well, that's one way to do - one way to proceed. But I really do feel that the way forward is to try to integrate those least extreme elements and come to some sort of negotiated settlement with them, and even possibly allowing them to form a political party and participate in the, you know, in the electoral process in Afghanistan, and come to some sort of power-sharing agreement.

Because one thing that they can all certainly agree upon, whether they're extreme or not, is that they want the foreigners out of their land, and that is certainly not going to happen whilst we're still fighting against them. And until we could offer them some of incentive to come to the table and have some sort of power-sharing agreement, you know, that is certainly not going to proceed forward.

CONAN: And then, how do you divide that 90 percent who are just pragmatists and local villagers, you say, away from the leadership of the movement - the Mullah Omars?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah. Well, that's one of the - one of the things we have to take any serious considerations, is how we actually do it. But I think a combination of incentives and a combination of dialogue. You know, it's my understanding that in 2004, this idea was postulated and dialogues were occurring between the United States, Saudi Arabia and those moderate elements that I'm referring to. But it came to nothing, simply because the administration of that time was not very keen on having a, you know, any sort of dialogue with the Taliban.

But I believe that we've come to the stage now in which we have absolutely no choice but to come to some sort of agreement with those - identify those moderate elements, enter into dialogue with them and try to come sort of power-sharing agreement with them.

CONAN: And does that mean - 90 percent of them, you say, are moderates. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy, in the years when the Taliban was in charge there, to go along with the kind of brutal suppression of women and dissenters of all sorts that went on in Afghanistan. Does this mean allowing those kinds of things to go on, at least in the areas that are controlled by the Pash - by the Taliban in Pashtun areas?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, one of the things we have to understand is that there are no moderates as we try - as we would like to think that there are moderates. There are only the least extreme elements. You know, we have to make that very clear, is that we have the extremist and then we have the less extreme. All of them are very highly conservative individuals.

You know, what we really have to do is that we have to try to understand the psyche of these people. You know, we simply cannot go into their country and try to create a state where no state has ever existed. It's just far too ambitious and has never been done, and we have to narrow our objectives and we have to modify and be a lot more compromising in our situation.

CONAN: So after more than eight years of war, we should abandon Afghan women to ignorance and subservience.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah. Well, you know, we - not necessarily that we should abandon them but, you know, they simply - we cannot change a psyche of a people within one generation. You have to understand that we simply cannot go into a country and try to transform the country in its entirety and how people behave and how they - their daily lives are and try to modify the tribal system and the conservative views, you know?

This was never part of the original war aims was - when we actually first went into Afghanistan. We first went into Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida and to ensure that it does not have a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Then much of that has actually been achieved to a satisfactory level. We can withdraw the majority of the troops and have a minimal presence of approximately 100,000.

You know, we can withdraw the majority of troops and have a minimal presence just to counter those very extreme elements of al-Qaida and to ensure that they do not have a sanctuary again in Afghanistan. But to see that part of our aims and objectives is to ensure that women have rights and to ensure that boys and girls will go to the same school together is simply not suitable. It just�

CONAN: Or maybe that girls go to school at all.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah. Well, it's simply not achievable. I do believe there are -we have to face against those elements. I certainly agree that it will not permit females going to school and, you know, things such as that. However, those elements can be isolated, I believe. But at the same time we really have to look at what is actually realistic.

You know, I would be delighted to know that we can actually go into Afghanistan and we can transform the entire society and make into a liberal democracy. But it's just simply not achievable with the resources that we have at the moment.

CONAN: We're talking with Azeem Ibrahim about the way forward in Afghanistan. He argues that, politically speaking, that must include moderate elements of the Taliban or, at least, less extreme elements of the Taliban. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And let's go to Tina(ph), Tina on the line with us from San Antonio.

TINA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi�

TINA: Thanks for taking my call. I agree, completely, with Azeem Ibrahim. We have to open up this dialogue and not pinhole the Taliban who are moderate. Just like if we look in history - Hitler was able to find followers because of economic trouble. And here, we have people who were becoming terrorists, more and more, because of economic trouble.

And if we open them up, we'll expose them to things that could change their society and change the way that we view them. I think it's very important to get - to give them a lot of - a lot more political leeway for us to go�

CONAN: So to give - we're not talking about political leeway, we're talking about a share of power.

TINA: I agree, yes - I'm sorry.

CONAN: Okay.

TINA: Share of powers - they definitely - so - I mean it is their right to choose to live the way they do. And if opening up their society to what else is going on in the world, like women's rights, over time, they will change that as well. But as long as we continue to stuff them into a box, it's never gonna change.

CONAN: All right, Tina, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Christopher(ph), Christopher with us from Denver.

CHRISTOPHER: Hi there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRISTOPHER: I'm going to - I'm really of two minds of the idea of giving the Taliban a share of political power, you know? On one side, I really like to believe the dialogue is the only way forward. But on the other hand, like, we've had people in Afghanistan, Pakistan - people like Greg Mortenson, who have, you know, really tried to improve the lives of people there, and they continue to be attacked by the more hostile elements of the Taliban.

And it just seems like this, with the Bush administration being so absolutely firm on not negotiating, we've alienated that group of people so much that I don't - I hesitate to believe that they could be reasonable in any way with this power-sharing agreement.

CONAN: Azeem Ibrahim, he raises a good question. That we may be willing to open the door to them, are they willing to walk through?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I think, absolutely. If you even, you know, consider some of the research that's come out of the region, of people have actually been on the ground. The least - the less extreme elements of the Taliban have been isolated and being overtaken by the more extremists. And what we have to do is that we have to empower those that are a little bit more moderate, those are less extreme and give them some sort of voice to actually come up and it's absolutely, I - there's absolutely no reason why I think that it would not come to some, sort of, power sharing agreement, to come to some sort of agreement in which that will facilitate the withdrawal of Western forces from their country. This is something that all of them can agree upon and anything that facilitates that and speeds that up is certainly to be welcome on the ground.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.

CONAN: And a good question. But also, how does the president's plan to send additional forces, the surge, playing in to this idea? Azeem Ibrahim, do you think this is a bad idea or - well, since it's evidently going to ahead, how is it going to affect this?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I don't necessarily think it's a bad idea. But I do think the president has an impossible situation. Anything that the president does now, the narrowing of the objectives and the modifying of the actual strategic aims in Afghanistan will be seen as a defeat, will be seen as a step backwards. But I don't believe the president had any choice except to send these troops to Afghanistan, simply because the commander and the current general, McChrystal, advocated that he'd acquires more troops. And for the president to go against the advice of the commander on the ground would be politically untenable for him.

But how much difference are those additional troops going to make? You know, the last outgoing commander, NATO commander General McNeal said that we need approximately 400,000 troops in Afghanistan to start even pacifying the insurgency there. Numbers that we just cannot seem - we cannot possibly consider at this particular moment. I think that the numbers should certainly be welcome to the extent not to bring a little bit more relative stability on the ground.

But, as a long term objective, you know, this war can literally go on for decades upon decades unless we have much more narrower and easily definable strategic aims. And part of those aims should be to withdraw the troops in a speedily fashion.

CONAN: Azeem Ibrahim is a World Fellow at Yale University. You can find a link to his op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on our Web site at NPR.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Dan(ph). Dan with us from Boise.

DAN (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead.

DAN: I just want to say I am very much against any type of negotiation with the Taliban or for that matter at any type of fundamentalist Sharia law group who denies 50 percent of their population basic human and civil rights. And that's been going on for a long time in Afghanistan and I think it's time we fully look at the fact that, for example, under the Sharia law it's legal for a husband to rape his wife under the moderate Karzai.

And I really think that we need to take a look at that and ask ourselves if 50 percent of, say, Nazi Germany had been subjugated in that way, if we wouldn't still be saying, never again, and putting our foot down.

CONAN: And as you note, Dan, that is a law that is current under the Karzai government, much less the Taliban. It doesn't seem that, you know, this is going to change much.

DAN: Well, I - yeah, I feel that same despair. And I really think that as long as we don't bring that into open dialogue, that those kind of injustices are really, you know, when we're talking about the Taliban, we're not talking about the half of the population that is female. And we really, really need to understand that those people are totally unrepresented. And, you know, we need to factor it in the right consideration of who we're going to negotiate with under any circumstances.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And Azeem Ibrahim, let me point out, many people that argue that indeed the vast majority of the Taliban are Pashtun. Pashtuns are an ethnic group that represent a little over 40 percent, it's believed, of the overall Afghan population. They are in the east and the southern part of the country for the most part. They're the ones who are - dominate the Taliban for certain and make up the vast majority of its recruits.

Mr. IBRAHIM. Yeah, you know, as the last caller said, you know, I would be absolutely delighted if they're (unintelligible) we could actually transform Afghanistan into a Western liberal democracy. But we simply have to be realistic, and it just cannot be achieved with the resources that we have, you know? And we just have to have a strategy that is less idealistic �cause it is doing serious disservice, not only to our troops out in Afghanistan, who are taking the brunt of the strategy, but at the same time, for the Afghans actually on the ground.

And in terms of referring to 50 percent of Sharia law denying half of the, you know, the population a right to an education, that's simply incorrect. I'm not a theologian, but it's simply incorrect. This is an Afghan thing. This is a tribal thing and how they interpret their own Sharia law. But it's certainly that's not the case.

CONAN: And it's therefore interpreted very differently in other countries.

Mr. IBRAHIM. Absolutely.

CONAN: And maybe not a liberal Western democracy, but how about into something along the lines of, I don't know, Jordan or something along the lines of Iraq, where women can go to work and women have rights.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah. But one thing you have to understand is that anything that he Western governments touch is immediately contaminated by that in the eyes of the Afghan people. You know, Karzai is certainly the president of Afghanistan on the ground. In reality, he's nothing more than the mayor of Kabul. And, you know, he simply has no legitimacy and he has no power.

And soon as everybody is fully aware that particularly after the most recent election, you know, the entire democratic process, the entire voting process has been seriously discredited because some people simply do not see that voting and democracy brings a change that they require.

CONAN: So just turn half the country over to the Taliban and say, that's it, see you?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Not necessarily. I mean, what I'm saying is that we have to identify those least extreme elements and come to some sort of power sharing agreement with them. And make it very clear that, you know, that these are the kind of values and these are the kinds of things that we expect from them.

And we have to undertake a very comprehensive rebuilding program with them and of rebuilding the country and development and education, but at the same time maintain a very small element of Special Forces troops there to fight against those very extreme elements who we have to, unfortunately, fight against.

CONAN: Azeem Ibrahim, thank you very much for your time today, appreciate it.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And again, there's link to Azeem Ibrahim's op-ed that was published in the Los Angeles Times on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School, currently a World Fellow at Yale.

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