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Talk With the Taliban? Alessandro Monsutti (right) and Magnus Marsden study rural societies in Afghanistan. (Photo by Margaretta Soehendro)

Talk With the Taliban?

Two European-based anthropologists say that Afghans may be more inclined than some others to speak with enemies and to entertain views opposed to their own.

By Margaretta Soehendro

I think we have missed an opportunity to build a weak state and to accept local government somehow.

Relevant Afghan customs and social norms have been left out of recent debates about whether President Hamid Karzai should or should not negotiate directly with the Taliban to end the insurgency. So observed two European-based anthropologists, Alessandro Monsutti and Magnus Marsden, at a Nov. 17, 2008, event cosponsored by UCLA's Asia Institute and Center for India and South Asia as part of the UCLA Central Asia Initiative. Earlier that day, the Bush administration had objected to Karzai's offer of safe-passage to Mullah Mohammed Omar for talks, without categorically opposing talks between the government in Kabul and elements of the Taliban.

"Political talks by definition have to bring [together] people who disagree," said Monsutti, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, who is currently doing research at Yale University.

Particularly in Afghanistan, he said, it is not unusual for members of disparate and even enemy groups to associate with one another. Monsutti was discussing the broad topic of Afghan networks of friendship, association and power, not only the question of political talks.

"The issue of negotiating with the Taliban is not new," said the discussion moderator, Nushin Arbabzadah, a visiting scholar at the UCLA Center for India and South Asia and a regular commentator for the United Kingdom's Guardian. "Since Karzai came to power, he has been trying to negotiate."

Arbabzadah said that moral objections may be raised both in favor of and against talks with the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. If the group guaranteed an end to violence and willingness to work with everyone else, she said, then seemingly negotiations should proceed. She added, however, that three recent attacks allegedly by Taliban insurgents targeted school girls, a male foreign aid worker, and a female social scientist embedded with the army.

"I found it really hard to think, 'Are we supposed to discuss with people like that?'" Arbabzadah said.

Monsutti warned further that negotiations were not likely to come under a total cease-fire.

"I don't think we can expect—especially because Taliban is certainly far from being a unified movement—that it will stop every violence before starting talking," he said.

Magnus Marsden, a professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of London, talked about the flexibility with which Afghans construct their own personal identities, through a process of debating their Islamic beliefs and aspects of their ethnicities, places of origin, and experiences. The research that Marsden conducted in Panjshiri, a valley north of Kabul, showed that the locals had a capacity to fiercely believe in one thing while still enjoying aspects of other, sometimes opposing, schools of thought.

"Through these debates, they sort of undermine the importance of these categories for their everyday lives by themselves in a very interesting way," he said.

Individuals may shift their allegiances, too, across the region. Marsden shared an anecdote about a Tajik Ismaili he met who moved to Pakistan to study that branch of Shiism and who one year later—after falling out with a member of his host family, growing a beard, and changing his attire—worked as a driver for the Taliban. Marsden said that a few years later, he met the man again, who was back in Chitral and working with a hashish smuggler to produce "hash schnapps."

According to Monsutti, whose current research is on the reconstruction process in Afghanistan, "the success of the Taliban is not just a result of mistakes made by Americans, Europeans, the World Bank, and so on. It's a much deeper social movement."

"They are here, and we have to somehow deal with them. We have to at least accept the idea that the Taliban mirror part of Afghan society," Monsutti said.

Increasingly, said all three speakers, Afghans express frustration with the central government and blame it above all for the lack of progress in their country.

"As a sort of self-functioning or resourceful whole, I don't think [a strong central government in Afghanistan] is something that's ever going to happen as far as I can tell," Marsden said.

"I really agree with Magnus," said Monsutti. "I think we have missed an opportunity to build a weak state and to accept local government somehow… We are building a strong state which doesn't deliver anything."

"And is very corrupt," said Marsden.

"So why don't we accept to have a weak state and local power?" Monsutti said.

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