The Afghanistan conflict is a war of narrative par excellence in which every side fights for a cause unrecognisable to their foes,
based upon premises which those foes would find preposterous. For 30 years Osama bin Laden was an actor-scriptwriter in the story of the Afghan war. With him gone, the narratives of the conflict – what people are fighting for and why – are going to have to be overhauled. And this hiatus in the war might even present an opportunity for the emergence of a narrative of peace.
The participation of Bin Laden and his fellow Arab volunteers in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s is of foundational importance in the al-Qaida narrative. The “Afghan Arabs” confronted a superpower to restore God’s law in a Muslim land. Afghanistan assumed an almost mystical significance as the original locus of struggle. Al-Qaida has long exaggerated their role in the contemporary fight in Afghanistan.
As a witness to the latter stages of the jihad of the 80s, I found the Arab militants rather peripheral. I recall visiting a “Wahhabi” mujahideen base in Kunduz. The young Afghans present were proud to point out their Arab commandos. But the Wahhabis’ contribution to the local fighting seemed to consist exclusively of rocketing Kunduz town, at a time when all Afghan parties there observed a protocol and left it alone, waiting for political change to come from elsewhere. The Wahhabis killed a few hapless victims, achieved nothing, but found the material for their grand narrative of global jihad.
After the Taliban took over, Bin Laden positioned himself as benefactor and unofficial mentor to the Taliban leader. From about 1998 to 2001 it seemed that bad advice from Bin Laden was behind many of the Taliban’s staged confrontations and defiant moves. After 2001, in private Taliban leaders have asserted their differences with Bin Laden and his cause, pleading that the armed struggle obliged them to raise funds wherever available. In the absence of the Bin Laden factor, the post-2001 Afghan conflict would probably have been wound down much earlier.
The removal of Bin Laden from the scene creates new opportunities for ending the Afghan conflict. Since 2001 there have been two missions in Afghanistan – counter-terrorism and peacemaking. For years they existed under separate military commands, with Operation Enduring Freedom to hunt terrorists and Isaf to bring security to Afghanistan. It is time for the peacemaking to move centre-stage. The raid on Abbottabad forces the Taliban leadership to rethink their situation and approach to the war. They have been trying to “ride out” the American military campaign by exploiting the same safe haven as Bin Laden. Few of them want to share his fate and inevitably all are thinking “who is next?”
Peacemaking will require a change of narrative. The Taliban will have to stomach, or even claim credit for, the Nato commitment to phased withdrawal from a secure Afghanistan. Nato will have to distinguish the patriotic Taliban, who become parties to a peace deal, from any extremists opposing it. And Afghans, Taliban and non-Taliban, will have to accommodate each other in a plural system, as a reasonable price for peace.
Seizing the opportunity created in Abbottabad requires the US to kickstart a political engagement with the Afghan insurgent leadership where it is located – in Pakistan. The US has to be the key backer of such engagement, although it has options as to whom it fields as the interlocutor. Such a process would be dependent on Pakistani support but now might be the best time to obtain that support. Pakistan has just had the embarrassment of the world watching Bin Laden emerge from one of its military cantonments and knows that there will be consequences. Giving a green light for a diplomatic team to talk the Taliban into the peace process would be a small price to pay for that embarrassment. There is no compromise of Pakistani sovereignty and, in any case, Pakistan has advocated involvement of the Taliban in a peace deal longer than anyone else.
Dispatching a diplomatic team to the Taliban in Pakistan would be the best way of demonstrating to insurgents that the United States and its allies are serious in their support of a peace process. It would be a practical and safe way of testing whether the Taliban really are prepared to end the decade of conflict. A new narrative would have Afghanistan moving towards peace, civil war factions and the Taliban reconciled, the United States supporting reconstruction rather than war and Pakistan helping the process. A fairytale? Not much has to change for it to become a plausible narrative.