January 27, 2010 10:49 pm

Elders press for early negotiations

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Tribal leaders dine with US and Afghan troops

Tribal leaders dine with US and Afghan troops

Once among the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, the River Arghandab valley has received an influx of hundreds of extra troops from the US 82nd Airborne Division since late last year. They have made at least some places here feel safer.

But elders gathering for a meeting in district headquarters protected by a US base doubt that force alone can control the Taliban fighters traipsing through their pomegranate orchards and vineyards.

Locals support the idea that talks with top Taliban’s leaders, or programmes to create work for low-level fighters, could end the fighting – even though there are obstacles in the path of both approaches.

“If the military fight more, the Taliban is going to fight back harder,” said Hajiraz Mohammed, a contractor sporting a black turban who had come to the gathering to lobby for US-funded reconstruction contracts. “The Taliban won’t want to fight the people if you create jobs for them.”

Arghandab, controlling a mountain pass that leads into the southern city of Kandahar, is a pivotal district in the counter-insurgency strategy pursued by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, who aims to drain the Taliban’s energy by denying its fighters access to main population centres. US forces suffered heavy casualties here late last year, but an increase in the number of troops from about 250 to more than 800 has bolstered security in some areas and created space for a trio of US civilian aid workers deployed as part of the Obama administration’s “civilian surge” to plan projects.

Gen McChrystal’s theory is that this approach – nation-building in all but name – will eventually knit together the kind of credible Afghan government that will allow political leaders in Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of strength.

Yet even in Arghandab – seen by the US as a model of how the US military and civilian workers can work together – work has barely begun. Although there is a district governor in office, he still does not feel safe enough to live here.

With fighting expected to increase when spring blossoms in May, elders favour negotiations sooner rather than later.

“We should talk to the enemies, then we can bring peace,” said Haji Abdul Rahman, one of the more elderly and outspoken leaders at the shura, or council, of several dozen elders.

“If you held a meeting with the Taliban, I would ask them, ‘why are you not happy with the government? Why are you messing around? Why don’t you join us?’ ”

Wali Shah, another elder, nodded his agreement. “We have leaders, they should talk to the Taliban,” he said. 

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