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Talking to the enemy

By Owei Lakemfa
THE United  States (US) believed over the decades that its greatest enemy was Libya. It regarded that country as a rogue state, a vineyard of terrorism, and its leader, Moamar Ghaddafi as unbalanced. But last  Sunday, acting US Assistant Secretary  of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman  was in Libya discussing American desire for military co-operation with Libya!

Back in 1981, US had broken diplomatic relations with Tripoli based on claims that the latter was sponsoring terrorism across the world.

In 1986, the Americans, then under Roland Reagan had bombed Libya. Relations worsened with the 1988 blow up of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland in which 259 persons, including 189 Americans lost their lives.  This was blamed on Libya, and a Libyan, Abdel  Basset  al Megrahi  was actually convicted for the bombing.

But in the last few years, Libya has become a darling of the West but not because Ghadaffi is gone or Libyan policies have changed. What has changed is the West, especially after Libya paid huge compensation to families of the bombing.

The fact is that it could not be factually established that  Libya was responsible for the bombing. But in the politics of the cold war, it was so accused and it just has to be guilty.

Last week, the US was talking to  friends like Egypt and Israel, and traditional enemies like Syria. American Defence Secretary, Robert Gates  was in Damascus seeking a peaceful resolution to the Middle East crisis. Syria is, of course, aggrieved that Israel has occupied its Golan Heights  for 42  years now. But the import of  the American move is that it  may no longer regard  Syrian allies like the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestine as lepers to be avoided.

The fact is that there can be no peace settlement in the Palestine today without the Hamas.

Iran is also on the agenda. Although President Barack Obama says one of the greatest threats to peace is Iran’s nuclear programme,  he does not appear to favour the use of force. The US appears to prefer talks but  Israel  does not want the  force option precluded.  In fact, from its Defence Minister  Ehud Barak’s insistence  that “… no option should be removed from the table”,  it is clear that it favours  a strike against Iran.

Israel feels uncomfortable about America’s moves in world politics, especially in the Middle East. This has prompted  Obama’s  declaration that  the bond between America and Israel is unbreakable. Gates has also assured Israel  of continued American financial and technical assistance, adding that US will ensure that Israel has the most advanced weapons to defend itself.

But Israel will be unwise to take these assurances on face value; it should recognise that American and Western policies are gradually shifting towards social justice in the Middle East. It has to discard its siege mentality and faith in arms.  It needs a new policy of talking to all, including Hamas.

Britain, one of the most strident  voices against the Taliban in Afghanistan  is now advocating talks with those it characterises as “ moderate members of the Taliban”.  The change of mind announced  by Foreign Secretary David  Milliband  may be in realisation of the fact that  the Taliban appears to be far from  defeat despite being confronted by  91,000  foreign fighters from some of the world’s best armies. Britain has already lost 191 soldiers, the US 667 and Canada 125.

Hamid  Karzai, the American-installed President of Afghanistan,  had long realised that the Taliban could neither  be easily defeated nor would it  give up. First,  they had been born as a strong fighting force in the days of Soviet occupation.

Secondly, the Talibans  had their army intact because  in  the American-led invasion,  they melted away as the invaders approached preferring  a guerrilla  warfare. Their simple tactic is to tie the enemy down, wear them out and hope to eventually defeat them.

Thirdly, the Talibans are highly motivated; they are fierce patriots and many believe that they are engaged in a holy war. Fourthly, they have the backing of fellow Islamic fighters who believe this is a jihad and are therefore willing to lay down their lives.

Fifthly, compared to the corruption -ridden Karzai  government, they seem  to the populace to be honest. Another point  is that the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian populace by the invaders has alienated the populace.A sixth advantage is that the Talibans have a receptive base in the Pakistani borders.

Sure the Talibans have disadvantages such as their  unbending adherence to religious principles and political intolerance of opposition and Western values, but  some of these account for the support they enjoy in the country.
Karzai had concluded that the best option is to talk to the Talibans, but until Britain’s change of mind, he was opposed by his Western masters.

With the August 20 presidential elections approaching, Karzai desperately wants to be seen as a patriot who can defend the interests of his people rather than a puppet. He is taking the unprecedented step of  making rules of conduct  for foreign troops, including American.

First, he is asking them to minimise civilian casualties, secondly, to  limit their searches of private homes, thirdly, that they restrict the indefinite detention of Afghans without  trial.

Specifically, he has asked the Americans to release about 600  Afghans detained at the Bagram Airbase unless there is evidence linking them to terrorism.

The Afghan president said while his country  wants partnership with the Americans and their allies, they must ensure “that the partners are not losing their lives, their property, their dignity as a consequence of that partnership”.

In the pack of 39 presidential candidates, Karzai is the sure bet, but  his talks with the Talibans  may  flunder   on a fundamental issue; the latter want a time table for the withdrawal of foreign troops. To Karzai, this is forbidden territory; he knows that  without foreign troops, he would be a goner.


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