The debate on whether the Taliban should be made “politically legitimate” gains more momentum, after a recent three-way summit between Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Political legitimacy” is a very interesting notion. The Taliban are our Enemy in Afghanistan. Suddenly declaring them “politically legitimate” seems like a kick in the groin to the families of more than two-thousand coalition soldiers killed there, and ten times that number wounded.
But as such a ‘reclassification’ is certain to be an important part of the withdrawal process, is it an invented cop-out – or a natural transition? Before elections and the rule of law – for Europeans in medieval times and Americans for example more latterly, what we call ‘political legitimacy’ was established only through money or arms; locally by force of arms, then over larger areas by shifting alliances and war. Behind the scenes, the traders who financed the warlords, influenced events through adjusting their lending criteria and interest rates; lending at high rates for wars – often to both sides to maximise profit.
The long struggle by which ordinary people acquired political influence came only once the economies of countries came to depend on both the labour and consumption of ordinary people. This change took place as part of the expansion of the Industrial Revolution. As Afghanistan has no industries, this is not a change that will naturally take place there; as with the idea of voting, and federal government. Re-enter the Taliban, as a regional entity seeking to unite ordinary people all across Afghanistan.
In their beginnings, terrorist organisations start out as wreckers of the status quo intent only on demonstrating that in being unable to control their law-breaking, the elected government is incapable of governing. Terrorists can usually only see as far as anarchy, with their stated aims – a united Ireland for example – providing justification for actions rather than being strategic goals.
But once a terrorist movement has wrecked the status quo, forcing the government to ruin life for all its citizens with martial law, curfews, special detention, laws and so on, there’s nowhere for it (or the government) to go. The government has, in the process of fighting the terrorists, already attended to many of the terrorists’ justifications for the conflict.
So, at this point, a clever government seeks to ‘win’ the war by (as routinely did the Roman Empire in its colonisation of wild and disjointed regions) absorbing all the terrorists into its political process, swapping bullet for ballot, alienating the hard-liners who remain incapable of change. At the same time, the clever terrorist negotiates hard for more rights, changes and freedoms in return for giving up weapons and renouncing violence.
The moment terrorists can no longer be contained or defeated by governments, they achieve political legitimacy. From a government point of view, it’s like identifying impending bankruptcy; it’s best accepted early, it’s illegal to continue to trade after that moment, and the longer you attempt to trade after that point, the worse it will be for everyone. The law requires you to bring in the creditors and thrash out an agreement.
A state that has run out of answers to terrorism to the extent that it’s regarded as fighting its own citizens, is morally and legally bankrupt, and without outside intervention will eventually fall. But poor Afghanistan has particular geopolitical value to the rest of the world, and so like an overly large bank, is deemed too important to fail.
Without outside help, the Kabul government would have fallen long ago. ISAF is spending huge amounts of blood and treasure in order to be the ones to decide exactly when to start serious negotiations with the Taliban. One could argue therefore that the Taliban have already achieved political legitimacy – a deduction that has very significant implications.