A light for Afghanistan's long, dark war

The Afghan president’s offer to engage in talks with the Taliban includes the possibility of the militants becoming a political party in elections. Such leniency implies the Taliban may be more sensitive to civilian opinion.

Boys play carom on a hilltop in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani put out an interesting peace feeler to the Taliban on Feb. 28. The offer might seem hopeless in a country that has endured armed conflict for 40 years. For Americans, too, the prospects of peace in Afghanistan can seem slim after their longest war; it’s been 16 years since the post-9/11 invasion to oust Al Qaeda.

Yet details of the offer provide a glimpse into possible shifts among Taliban fighters that hint they may want to achieve their aims by means other than violence.

Mr. Ghani, as expected, offered direct negotiations with no conditions as well as a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners. The unusual part was an offer to change the Constitution to allow the Taliban to operate as a legitimate political group within Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

The notion of normalizing the reviled militants as everyday politicians requires not only a position of strength by the Afghan government but a great deal of magnanimity.

The president explained his motives this way: “What should be our reply to the opponents who kill us? Peace or war? A verse in the Holy Quran says that an evil move should be responded to with a good act. Peace has got priority over war.”

The Taliban are still far from relying on ballots rather than bullets to reestablish their strict Islamic “emirate.” They control about a third of the population that lives in rural areas and are supported by Pakistan as well as tax revenues from the opium trade. Their suicide bombers still wreak havoc in Afghan cities.

Yet they also show a heightened sensitivity to what they call the “social issue of civilian casualties.” In a new report, the United Nations blames the Taliban for 42 percent of the war’s civilian casualties last year – much higher than the amount attributed to other militant groups or the government’s 16 percent. The Taliban objected to the report, which suggests it may be on a campaign to win hearts and minds.

The group already fares very low in opinion polls because of its brutal tactics and radical ideology, especially toward women. (Girls now account for about 40 percent of students in public schools.) In his peace offer, Ghani said he wants to find out if the Taliban “understand people’s feelings [about the ongoing conflict] or not.”

And in anticipation of peace, the International Criminal Court has set up shop in Afghanistan and begun taking complaints on behalf of 1.17 million victims of the war for future prosecution. The ICC’s presence shows that Afghans seek rule of law over law of the gun.

The Taliban also face a new military offensive by the United States and Afghan forces that began last year. The militant group’s drug labs, training grounds, and commanders are now better targeted by the US-Afghan forces than in the past, perhaps pushing the group to accept the possibility of a stalemate in the war rather than a victory.

Ghani’s offer is an echo of the beginning of the peace process in Colombia that ended that country’s half-century of war in 2016.

After a strong military offensive by the government, Colombia’s Marxist rebels agreed to talks and an offer to lay down their arms and run for political office. The talks began in 2012 with an admission by the rebel commander, Timoleon Jimenez, that a continuation of the conflict “will involve more death and destruction, more grief and tears” for civilians. To achieve peace, both sides in Colombia had to admit the suffering that each had caused.

Is Afghanistan now at a similar moment, with both sides sharing a common desire to spare innocent lives? Ghani’s offer of a “good act” – letting the Taliban run for office – might be the first step to ending the “evil” of a long war.

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