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TALIBAN SUFFER SETBACK IN HELMAND
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
September 25, 2007

International opinion is so used to bad news from Afghanistan and Iraq that whenever there is good news it is often either totally ignored or not appreciated for its full worth.

One such item of good news came last week from Helmand, a war-torn province in southern Afghanistan where the remnants of the Taliban had resisted Nato attempts at dislodging them for more than three years.

Helmand is one of two provinces where the Taliban, an exclusively Pushtun movement, has had an ethnic support base since it first appeared on the Afghan political map in 1995. (The other one is Arzangan, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's native province.)

Helmand held other advantages for the remnants of the Taliban.

Close to both the Iranian and Pakistani borders, the province allows Mullah Omar's fighters to slip away whenever faced with annihilation. The two borders are more than 3,500 kilometres long and, because of numerous mountain and desert crossings, hard to guard. (In any case, Nato and the new Afghan army have deployed no more than 16,000 men to guard the two frontiers.)

Helmand's natural feature, a mixture of desert, bare hills and lush fields where opium poppy is cultivated, also provides countless opportunities for hiding men and materiel.

The Taliban had vowed to fight to death to keep control of the stretch of land it had grabbed in Helmand. Last week, however, the mullahs decided that they had lost the battle and ordered a general retreat, abandoning a string of fortifications after suffering heavy casualties.

By all accounts, this was a major military victory for the Nato forces, led by the British. Yet rather than using the victory as a means of strengthening the unity of Afghanistan's democratic forces, the so-called international community has used it as an argument for seeking a dialogue with the Taliban.

Bizarre statementThe first appeal to that effect came from the United Nations, under whose auspices the Helmand victory had been achieved. In a bizarre statement that could only give comfort to the fleeing rebels, the UN urged the Afghan government to seek a "national dialogue" with the Taliban.

The UN went even further by offering to mediate between the government and the Taliban, thus putting them on the same level as if a democratically elected administration of President Hamid Karzai was just another warring faction.

Needless to say, the Taliban reacted by calling for a cancellation of the democratic Constitution, the reimposition of Sharia law, and the expulsion of the UN mission as pre-conditions of any dialogue.

The UN's move, assuming it was a product of naiveté rather than a desire to thumb its nose at the Afghan government and its Nato allies, diverted attention from the victory won in Helmand and sent a confused message to Afghans.

If the UN persists in its misguided efforts to keep the Taliban politically alive, it could do even more damage to the very mission that Nato is pursuing on behalf of the international community. It could tell the people of Helmand and Arzangan that it is too early to abandon the Taliban lest they gain a share of power thanks to UN efforts.

The UN position contains another dangerous message. It tells Afghans that political legitimacy does not come from the ballot box alone; anyone with a gun and financed by heroin smuggling could claim a national political role.

More importantly, perhaps, it could demoralise the Nato and Afghan soldiers who have been fighting the Taliban under the UN flag.

To a majority of Afghans the Taliban constitute nothing but a criminal gang backed by the Pakistan military intelligence and Islamists in several Arab countries. It is also an established fact that the Taliban, during their rule in Kabul, committed countless crimes against humanity - crimes documented by the UN itself.

To treat this criminal band as a bona fide political party with the right to be invited into the political process is unbelievable. The UN's own investigations also show that, since 2003, the Taliban have been involved in the production and smuggling of opium and heroin on an industrial scale.

What the UN needs to do is to seek international arrest warrants for the Taliban leaders, rather than offer to negotiate a share of political power on their behalf.

The victory in Helmand should be followed with a solemn demand to Iran and Pakistan not to shelter the fugitive Taliban and to hand over the criminals who fled into their territory.

Former sympathisers

The time for inviting the Taliban to a dialogue was 2004 and 2005 when the new Afghan political system was taking shape. Such an invitation was issued by the Loya Jirga, the informal High Assembly of Afghan tribal and religious elders that acted as a parliament until elections we held.

Many Taliban activists and sympathisers responded positively to the invitation at the time and joined the political process. Today, at least 12 members of the National Assembly (parliament) are former Taliban sympathisers.

The new elected government has also granted a general amnesty to all those who agree to lay down their weapons, accept the new democratic constitution, and resume normal life.

No amnesty, however, could be open-ended. Those Taliban fighters who have ignored the previous government offers and have continued to fight must be treated as rebels against a democratic system and deserving of no special favours.

To be sure, the Afghan government must open a dialogue with the tribes in the affected provinces, especially the Ishakzai who provide the backbone of the Taliban's ethnic support.

The government also needs to come up with an urgent and serious reconstruction programme designed to consolidate security, provide new jobs and extend the rule of law to the frontier provinces.

In all that, however, there is no room for the Taliban. What is left of the group should be defeated along with the bandits and smugglers it has chosen as allies.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author based in Europe.

 

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