The almost unrelenting stream of bad news from Afghanistan is sparking a debate as to whether or not the U.S. can win against the Taliban. However we need to ask ourselves a far more fundamental question: would the Taliban win in a free election if they were allowed to participate?
We tend to treat the Taliban as if they were somehow separate from the population of Afghanistan. We talk about freeing Afghanistan from the Taliban as if they were some kind of hated occupying force that has taken over and is keeping the country from moving into the 21st century. But the Taliban are the people of Afghanistan, or at least a sizable plurality of them. We forget that the Taliban won the last civil war. This wouldn’t have happened unless the Taliban had the active or at least passive support of most of the population. As baffling as it might seem to us, chances are most people in Afghanistan are happy living in whichever century they currently reside.
Even today if a truly free and inclusive election were held in Afghanistan there is a reasonable chance the Taliban would win the largest number of votes. Given the current state of the country and the corruption of the Karzai administration there is a chance they might even win an outright majority. The United States rightly supports the spread of democracy, but the Taliban highlight the challenges of this position – in many parts of the world the groups that would win the election aren’t necessarily progressive or modern, or even all that committed to the idea of representative government. Afghanistan is already a harsh place. If the Taliban were voted back into power life would likely become even harsher, particularly for women and girls and the more progressive part of the population. And as hard as this might be for us to stomach this is their right; we afford sovereign nations wide latitude in how they treat their population. Yes, even if it means denying education and basic rights to women. Frankly even if we wanted to change it we couldn’t – the status of women has always been tied to the state of economic development, and most of Afghanistan hasn’t joined the industrial world.
As much as we have grown to hate them, we didn’t invade Afghanistan to depose the Taliban. If they had turned over bin Laden and al Qaeda to the U.S. we wouldn’t have invaded and they would still be in power. The goals of the invasion were to capture or kill bin Laden, destroy al Qaeda and insure Afghanistan was no longer used as al Qaeda’s base of operations. We failed on the first two goals; bin Laden is still free and al Qaeda, while disrupted, is now operating in more countries. Achieving the third goal, insuring Afghanistan is not used as a base for subsequent attacks, will require an international military presence in Afghanistan or years to come. Maintaining that military presence will be much easier and cheaper if we can foster a stable, democratic government in Afghanistan. Given the breadth of their support representative government in Afghanistan isn’t possible unless the Taliban are allowed to participate in the democratic process, and if they win a free election are allowed to take control of the country.
Allowing the Taliban to have a democratic path back to power in Afghanistan will in some ways be a bitter pill for the U.S. to swallow. We will have spent $300 billion dollars and sacrificed the lives of over 1,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, with the net effect of making al Qaeda relocate its training camps to Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia. But at some point we have to take a hard look at why we continue down our current path; at some point we have to decide if our current approach actually furthers our interests. Our nation has a strong interest in minimizing the human and financial cost of maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan. We have a further interest in promoting democracy in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A representative, democratic government in Afghanistan advances both interests. And it is hard to imagine a democratic Afghanistan without the Taliban.