Published by Embassy, an Ottawa-based foreign policy weekly
“I told you so” is an unbecoming political posture, but NDP Leader Jack Layton could certainly be forgiven such thoughts when the subject turns to negotiating with the Taliban.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government once thought it clever to ridicule Mr. Layton’s call for talks. He didn’t understand the real world, they said; next he’d be wanting tea with Osama Bin Laden.
But now Mr. Harper insists that “it has always been our position that [talks with insurgents are] part of an eventual solution, and that it’s not simply military action alone.”
Would that it were so.
In 2007, Mr. Harper’s foreign minister, Maxime Bernier, put it this way: “Canada does not negotiate with terrorists, for any reason.”
In 2006, while others, including Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh, were insisting that wars end through negotiation, the government aligned itself more with commentators from Rex Murphy to the Western Standard who managed only to deride the idea.
The Globe and Mail editorialized that “if there were a realistic prospect that all sides shared this goal [of reconstruction and meeting the basic needs of Afghans], Canadian soldiers would not be fighting in Afghanistan”-and since we are fighting the Taliban, was the subtext, why would we negotiate with them?
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada joined Mr. Bernier and the Harper government to cast the refusal to talk as a general principle: there cannot be “peace talks between an elected government and heavily-armed gangs of militant school-burners.”
But, happily, that’s all in the past; the point now is to welcome the reversal and to encourage the Harper government in its new willingness to support talks and to help, as it now says Canada will, provide Taliban negotiators with safe passage to negotiating venues.
Now that talking is an acceptable option, Mr. Harper is right to voice the cautions that he added to his support for talks. In fact, these are cautions that advocates of negotiations have been citing all along.
Of particular importance is preserving the advances in civil and human rights that some elements of the Afghan population have enjoyed since the fall of the Taliban Government in late 2001.
But there is a fundamental difference between clear negotiating principles and objectives, on the one hand, and negotiating preconditions on the other.
It is a distinction that has been made clear in President Barak Obama’s support for the pursuit of a political settlement. He had already signed off on support for talks earlier this year, on the condition that “at the end of the process” the Taliban agreed to renounce violence, lay down their arms and pledge fidelity to the Afghan Constitution.
These are obviously essential conditions for a peace agreement, but they are to be in place at the end of the negotiating process, not as a precondition to starting the process.
For example, the insistence on support for the constitution once agreement is reached cannot preclude the possibility that the process could yield an amended constitution (there is, after all, plenty of argument for a constitution that allows for greater decentralization of government, for example).
But the fundamental point is that an end to fighting and respect for the rule of law are the aim of the negotiations, not a precondition for them. The minimum requirement for any peace agreement is obviously that the fighting stops and that the agreed constitution is honoured.
Active support for the current talks is a major step forward, although it is very, very early in the reconciliation process. There is a lot of talking now to be done, and it doesn’t take many visits to Afghanistan to recognize that it is process that will involve a lot of that tea.
Canadians encouraged by the move toward talks might want to raise a cup in honour of Messrs. Layton and Dosanjh and those who recognized early on that civil wars are much more likely to be settled at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.
© 2010 The Hill Times Publishing Inc.