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President Obama must negotiate with the Taliban about Afghan self-determination and in order to capture Osama bin Laden

By       Message William Barth     Permalink
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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to None 12/10/09

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"Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

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- John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961

Americans oppose insurgency -- so much so that President Obama's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, has testified before Congress that the administration plans to send 33,000 more American troops and spend an additional $100 billion in Afghanistan. All this to continue a war against insurgent Taliban forces battling the regime of President Hamid Karzai, which is not only widely regarded as being extremely corrupt, but has also been implicated in heroin-trafficking. This should give us pause to re-examine our opposition to the Taliban, as well as to insurgency broadly defined.

Our anti-insurgency bias is not consistent with our history. The United States was established, in large part, through the actions of insurgent minutemen against King George III's British troops. Even though European colonialism has long since ended, insurgents still continue their battles to eradicate colonialism's legacy. Insurgency is also used by indigenous populations in order to gain self-governance in regions still controlled by states unsympathetic to local political aspirations. It is difficult to understand why Americans should oppose such movements in principle, given that self-determination is jus cogens (universally recognized)as a tenet of international law. Indeed, this principle was first established by President Woodrow Wilson, and the League of Nations, at the conclusion of WWI, in hope of ending the use of war as a tool to achieve national aspirations.

Whilst insurgencies generally act in the name of self-determination, this does not, naturally, in any way excuse their use of terror-tactics; that is, crimes of violence against civilians. What is the case, though, is that terrorism would very likely be reduced were remedies to be created within international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), as well as other regional bodies, that do not currently recognize insurgent claims. Insurgent groups have no international forum where they can present a claim for self-determination, or statehood. The UN Human Rights Committee, or other international treaty monitoring bodies, might be suitable for this purpose. In the absence of any international remedy, however, the only alternatives these groups believe that they have to prosecute their grievances are civil protest, or violence.

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Since the end of WWII, the United States has consistently opposed insurgent movements throughout formerly European-held colonies in Asia, Africa and India. The most notable instance of this was opposition to the African National Congress (ANC), which battled South African apartheid for several decades but was for a long time considered to be a terrorist organization (Nelson Mandela, former chair of the ANC, has since been awarded the Noble Peace Prize). Still another illustration is that of Vietnamese insurgents (the Viet-Cong) who battled first against French colonization, and later, against American troops. We once dismissed Vietnamese insurgents as communist-puppets controlled by Beijing and Moscow; but these same communists today demonstrate Vietnam's independence by having established a partnership with the United States.

The United States is not the only major power to have opposed insurgency with force. Britain, for example, spent most of the last century battling a home-grown insurgency led by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which used terrorism against civilians in the cause of Irish unity and independence. The initial IRA insurgency (1919-1921) resulted in an independent Republic of Ireland, which since, has not only become one of the most prosperous states within the European Union, but also enjoys friendly relations with the former colonial power, that is, the UK. The British also decided to negotiate with another IRA insurgency (1969-2005) over the future of Northern Ireland, which has yielded a peace settlement making the territory far more stable and open to economic investment and development.

Moreover, in the first half of the twentieth century Indian insurgents lead by Mahatma Gandhi contributed to Britain's ultimate grant of Indian independence, by implementing a campaign of non-violence and non-cooperation; although even Gandhi could not prevent outbreaks of terror tactics. And France has battled its own insurgencies in North Africa; for example, as documented by French cinema in The Battle for Algiers, which portrayed Algerian insurgents bombing Parisian-style cafes.

Negotiating with the Taliban-insurgency would benefit US interests in the region. The war, now in its eighth year, has failed to achieve its most basic objective, namely, capturing Osama bin Laden for his crimes against humanity on 9/11 and bringing him to justice. This is despite the Taliban having made two overtures to turn bin Laden over, once shortly after the 9/11 attack, and again, according to a report by Tom Hayden (LA Times), last month. Such negotiations would certainly take us closer to meeting our central objective in Afghanistan, that is, the capture and prosecution of bin Laden and his lieutenants who plotted the hijacked-airliner suicide attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers.

It is important to cultivate responsibility within insurgencies by adopting standards that bring them into the political process. Otherwise, these groups will remain alienated from procedures that they already consider to be illegitimate. The best way to achieve this result in Afghanistan is by opening direct negotiations with the Taliban. The Obama administration's announcement of a troop escalation will only exacerbate the insurgency. Furthermore, war is always an imperfect tool, because the states that fight wars usually played a key role in the conditions that started them in the first instance. Clearly, the US CIA's militarily arming of the Taliban to battle against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989) helped to lay the ground for the very insurgency that American troops are battling in the current day. The US should begin negotiations with the Taliban in order to bring Osama bin Laden, and his lieutenants, to justice, as well as to help President Obama's long-term objective of withdrawing American troops and bringing self-determination to the Afghans.

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Dr. William K. Barth's book is entitled, On Cultural Rights: The Equality of Nations and the Minority Legal Tradition (Boston, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008). He received his doctorate from the Univeristy of Oxford.

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