What a difference a few years can make. Yesterday, they were called terrorists. Today, the Taliban are a force the Americans are ready to recognize in public.
It was only in 2005 that top Canadian soldier General Rick Hillier called the Taliban "detestable murderers and scumbags." President George W. Bush called them the evil-doers. But that's all in the past. Taliban are back in vogue. Even the Americans have admitted that they would now do in public what they have been doing in private: talking with the Taliban.
What started three years ago in secret in a German village near Munich has matured enough to be shared with the rest of the world. The stage is set in Doha, Qatar, for yet another round of talks between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban. Those knowledgeable of Afghanistan's past and present had advocated this dialogue for years, not because the Taliban were the ideal interlocutors, but because they had the support of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pushtuns. These talks would have happened years ago if it were not for the ignorant intellectual elites, macho generals, and political ideologues who led the West to believe that Afghans could be defeated in Afghanistan.
Canada, a member of NATO, is one such country where the electorate was misled by its political, military, and intellectual leadership about what was transpiring in Afghanistan. With one voice, these elites told Canadians that the war in Afghanistan was against the evil and that we (read: NATO) were winning. Billions of dollars of taxpayers' money was poured into the Afghan war that caused the deaths of thousands of NATO troops and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, while displacing several millions internally and externally.
In July 2005, I was visiting Peshawar, Pakistan, on a research assignment at the Engineering University when I read about the now infamous quote from Canada's former Chief of Staff, General Rick Hillier, in which he called the Taliban scumbags. The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, jumped with excitement over the "warlike words" from the nation's top General. "Bravo to him for saying it," read the Globe editorial.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, minced no words in May 2011, when he addressed the Canadian troops in Kandahar. "The vicious Taliban regime bludgeoned its own citizens, but welcomed the world's worst killers," he told the Canadian troops on a day he managed to meet, albeit very briefly, just one Afghan citizen. The Canadian chief of staff, General Walter Natynczyk, sang praise of a newly built road to Prime Minister Harper. The new road drove a "dagger in the Taliban's heart," the General reportedly told Mr. Harper.
But the editors at the Globe and Mail were not the only ones who got carried away by the tough-talking Generals and the elected officials. In fact, Canada's intellectual enterprise bought the official narrative lock stock and barrel. In a televised debate in March 2008, Professor Janice Stein, who heads the prestigious Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, defended Canada's presence in Afghanistan and extolled the virtuous contributions by NATO to Afghanistan's human development.
I was quick to remind Professor Stein during the live telecast that Afghanistan had the third highest infant mortality rate in the world and that Afghanistan was ranked 174 (one of the worst in human development) on the United Nation's Human Development Index. Professor Stein responded with more numbers that were neither true, nor did they make any sense. She said that the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan was "astronomically high, it was something like between 65 and 70 per cent. It has dropped below 50 per cent in the last four years. Why? Because people have access to health services now that they did not have four years ago."
It would have been great if only it were true. According to the CIA's World Factbook, Afghanistan's infant mortality rate in 2008 was 154 deaths per 1,000 live births, which was only 8 per cent percent lower than four years ago; not a 50 per cent drop as Professor Stein had suggested. What is even more telling is that earlier in 2000, the infant mortality rate was lower under the Taliban rule. Even today, Afghanistan continues to report the world's highest infant mortality rate.
Another political scientist at McGill University, Professor Stephen Saideman, mistakenly took bloodletting in Afghanistan as a rite of passage for Canada to gain respect of other countries. "Canada has gained a great deal of influence because of its willingness to lead and bleed in Kandahar," he wrote in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail.
Despite the sabre rattling by the Canadian civil and military elites, the fact remains that Canadians lacked even the basic understanding of Afghanistan's ground realities. Their stay in Afghanistan made the soldiers and their Generals no wiser. Even the tough talking General Hillier admitted to this while testifying in Ottawa in 2009. "Yes, we probably detained the occasional farmer -- and whether they were farmers by day and Taliban by night, which is often the case, is something that is very difficult to discern," said the General.
Staying any longer in Afghanistan would not have granted NATO a victory over the Taliban. Nor would it have turned the Taliban into liberals who would support the women's right to higher education. However, talking with, and not merely to, the Taliban will be the first step towards giving Afghans, Pushtuns and others, a chance to heal and rebuild a state and a society of their choice.
Nationality: American Served: Feb. 10, 2013 to present <em>Caption: Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his confirmation to be the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and to be commander of the U.S. Forces, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)</em>
Nationality: American Served: July 18, 2011 to Feb. 10, 2013 <em>Caption: This July 22, 2012, file photo shows U.S. Gen. John Allen, top commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, during an interview with The Associated Press in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, File)</em>
Nationality: American Served: July 4, 2010 to July 18, 2011 <em>Caption: In this July 5, 2010, file photo, Gen. David Petraeus, then newly-installed top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, eats bread at a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Ahmad Massoud, File)</em>
Nationality: British Served: June 23, 2010 to July 4, 2010 Assumed interim command after Gen. Stanley McChrystal resigned <em>Caption: Lieutenant General Sir Nick Parker, the Commander-in-Chief of UK Land Forces, arrives at the Houses of Parliament on Dec. 12, 2012 in London, England. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: American Served: June 15, 2009 to June 23, 2010 <em>Caption: Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal smiles while speaking during his retirement ceremony at Fort McNair July 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: American Served: June 2, 2008 to June 15, 2009 <em>Caption: In this Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008 file photo, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, then top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference with Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Mohammad Akram, not pictured, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, File)</em>
Nationality: American Served: Feb. 7, 2007 to June 2, 2008 <em>Caption: In this Monday, June 11, 2007 file photo, U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill, then top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, speaks during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, File)</em>
Nationality: British Served: May 4, 2006 to Feb. 7, 2007 <em>Caption: U.S. General Martin Dempsey, right, and British General Sir David Richards listen to the opening comments during a meeting of NATO Military Chiefs of Staff at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>
Nationality: Italian Served: Aug. 5, 2005 to May 4, 2006 <em>Caption: Mauro Del Vecchio attends 'Italia - Milano, 150 Anni In Salute' - Charity Gala held at Villa Necchi on June 28, 2010 in Milan, Italy. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: Turkish Served: Feb. 6, 2005 to Aug. 5, 2005 <em>Caption: Incoming Turkish Commander Lieutenant General Ethem Erdagi (L) is watched by French Lieutenant General Jean-Louis Py (R) as he addresses an audience during a change of command ceremony at ISAF Headquarters in Kabul, Feb. 13, 2005. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: French Served: Aug. 7, 2004 to Feb. 6, 2005 <em>Caption: French Commander of the International Security Assistance Force(ISAF) General Jean-Louis Py (L) shakes hands with Afghan tribal elders in Fayzabad, Dec. 16, 2004. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: Canadian Served: Feb. 9, 2004 to Aug. 7, 2004 <em>Caption: Chief of the Defense Staff General Rick Hillier of the Canadian Armed Forces drops the puck along with members of the Canadian Military during a ceremonial face-off with Mike Fisher #12 of the Ottawa Senators and Mats Sundin #13 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during their NHL game at the Air Canada Centre, Feb. 2, 2008 in Toronto, Ontario. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: German Served: Aug. 11, 2003 to Feb. 9, 2004 First ISAF-mission under the command of NATO, led by NATO <em>Caption: International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Lieutenant-General Goetz Gliemeroth gestures during a press conference in Kabul, Jan. 21, 2004. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Nationality: German Served: Feb. 10, 2003 to Aug. 11, 2003 <em>Caption: Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst of Germany, commander of th International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF speaks to the media in Kabul Wednesday, March 5, 2003. (AP Photo/Amir Shah)</em>
Nationality: Turkish Served: June 2002 to Feb. 10, 2003 <em>Caption: Commander ISAF Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu make a short speech at the Old King's Palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, July 10, 2002. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)</em>
Nationality: British Served: December 2001 to June 2002 <em>Caption: General Sir John McColl arrives at the Iraq Inquiry on Feb. 8, 2010 in London, England. General Sir John McColl was the Senior British Military Representative in Iraq in 2004. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)</em>
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