Vote Taliban in 2010?

Photo by flickr user The U.S. Army under a Creative Commons license

Instead of fighting the Taliban, why not encourage them to run for office? Tell them to form their own political party, and they could officially govern many of the local Pashtun areas already under their control. Think of it: “Vote Taliban in 2010.”

That’s one of the proposed solutions offered in a Financial Times op-ed on Tuesday with some fresh ideas on how the West can best exit Afghanistan. In a bloody conflict where tangible solutions are as rare as authentic election ballots, the op-ed’s authors—Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador in Washington, and Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London—offer Western leaders some food for thought in avoiding a disastrous exit, and a framework for withdrawal that hasn’t figured much into US debates on the issue.

Chief among their arguments is the need for no less than a complete decentralization of Afghanistan’s government, “a move from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government.” This makes sense, given how little Kabul’s influence extends beyond its limits. In this context, the Taliban could become a political party that would rule in local Pashtun areas and share power with Kabul—that is, on the condition that they “pledge not to permit sanctuaries for terrorism in areas it may dominate.” The need for this pledge, the authors continue, is that signs that “the Taliban’s alliance with al Qaeda may be fraying need to be seriously tested.” (On Sunday, Hakimullah Mehsud, new leader of the Pakistani Taliban, called his group’s relationship to al Qaeda one of “love and affection.”)

The notion of legitimizing the Taliban raises plenty of suspicions and questions. How could the US take the Taliban at its word? And who’s to say Talib governance over Pashtun villages would look any different if the Taliban were a political party? Would they still threaten to maim and kill people who vote? Would they continue to ruthlessly repress Afghan women?

More importantly, Lodhi and Lieven say the West needs to talk to the Taliban—that opening negotiations with the enemy, if possible, is one of the few ways to achieve a less-than-disastrous denouement to the Afghan war. If negotiations commence, a ceasefire could be agreed upon, perhaps in exchange for a phased withdrawal by occupying forces.

The authors discuss a few more necessary steps for Western forces. I highly recommend reading their argument, and whether or not you agree, they are at least putting forth some substantive ideas for a debacle in dire need of them.