Engaging the people provides a powerful incentive for peace
The news last weekend that Britain's senior commander in Afghanistan had ruled out a decisive military victory against Taleban insurgents came as no surprise to Daniel Taylor, head of a non-governmental organisation active there.
'Leaving the Taleban out of the process, believing [it] could be totally vanquished by military action, was one of two key mistakes after the very successful break-up of the Taleban and al-Qaeda resistance in late 2001,' he said yesterday, the seventh anniversary of the US-led military operation launched after the September 11 attacks.
'Not engaging the communities, the Afghan people, as allies was the second key mistake,' he said.
Dr Taylor, who is president of the US-based non-profit organisation Future Generations, will deliver an address tonight to the Royal Geographical Society, Hong Kong, titled 'Engaging the People - What's Missing in Action in Afghanistan'.
He called the assessment by Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith - who also intimated that the Taleban could be included in a negotiated political settlement - 'enlightened'.
'A lot of very progressive military leaders have been arguing right from the start that the 'Dick Cheney approach' was misguided and that we had other options in 2002,' he said, referring to the hawkish stance of the US vice-president. 'Now, some of these voices are being emboldened to speak out.'
Dr Taylor said that, because the Taleban had been left out of the solution, it had created an alliance with sectors of the people in communities across Afghanistan.
'Those sectors have given them safe haven and have systematically been co-opted either with incentives such as the growing of poppies so that they're making an economic gain, or with disincentives, like outright terrorism, to subdue them into compliance.'
He said that, after being crushed by the international invasion forces, the Taleban had retreated to these communities and regrouped.
'The military analysis has finally come to realise that, as a consequence, they're not dealing with a military problem but with a problem of resistance that is based in the communities. It's based in the people.'
He believed that a military solution, coupled with a totally new approach to engaging the people, could quickly erode the support the Taleban has.
Such engagement, Dr Taylor said, was the focus of his organisation. Future Generations had worked 'intensively' in Afghanistan since 2002 to 'build local empowerment' at community level, starting with family 'sub-clans' each numbering several hundred people.
'That is the level that has held Afghanistan together since Alexander the Great. It's a durable organisational unit and it is the unit in which people trust each other, they lend to each other, they share their work together.'
He said the approach was 'extremely' successful. For example, in the past 11 months, Future Generations had established 700 schools in homes and mosques with 15,000 fully enrolled students - 80 per cent of them girls and young women, 'an uncommon ratio' for education in Afghanistan, he added.
Future Generations had also started a soccer league with 120 teams, including a dozen girls' teams. 'Their difficulty, of course, is that they can't practice in daylight. They have to practice at dusk, so we paint the football solid white.'
Most surprisingly, Dr Taylor's organisation had recently received a written apology - thought to be unprecedented - from a senior chieftain in the insurgency. It followed an incident in which 23 Afghan staff and volunteers of Future Generations were taken hostage. They were to be killed if the NGO did not leave Afghanistan in 48 hours. 'We kept reminding the hostage takers that 'they're your people, not our people',' Dr Taylor said. The hostages were all released.
The episode illustrated the need for community-building initiatives to be owned by Afghans rather than being viewed as 'liberation from the outside', which is where Dr Taylor thinks the international community erred. Although the international response was misguided, he said, there was now a real opportunity for peace.
'When things get really bad, it actually opens new doors of opportunity that are otherwise closed. Things are bad enough right now that it's possible to get alliances across some of the sub-clans that have had historical feuds. That's because they can see that the alternative is much, much worse.'
These alternatives, he said, were going back to the Taleban era of religious totalitarianism or to civil war, or becoming a 'narco-petroleum' state.
'Most of the people want a modern participatory life in which they get the benefits of modern life, defined in their own realm, of course' Dr Taylor said.