This is the story of Ahmed, a 38 year-old Afghan. Understand him and a sliver of Afghanistan’s vast complexity comes into focus.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard rumors of peace talks in Afghanistan…again. The Taliban, the U.S., and the Afghan government were all showing a willingness to sit down…until….
…the Taliban hung a flashy sign over their new political pad in Qatar that said, “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” making it look like a government in exile. This enraged the Afghan government, so the Americans convinced the Qataris to force the Taliban to remove the sign and now all sides are waffling.¹
But what does peace even look like in the 21th century? Wars are no longer fought until the bitter end when the losing side waves a white flag and a political settlement ends the violence.
Today’s conflicts reach a tipping point, where the weaker party peters out while the dominant one hangs on to power with the continued threat of further attacks. So is a 21th century white flag possible with the Taliban?
To answer that question, let’s tell Ahmed’s story. When Ahmed was four, the Soviet Union invaded his village. To escape occupation or death, Ahmed and his family fled to northern Pakistan on foot, through the most rugged terrain on planet Earth.
Once in Pakistan, Ahmed’s family joined 3.3 million other Afghan refugees and settled in one of 340 refugee camps. Because Ahmed’s family was poor, without any animals or connections in Pakistan, they were completely dependent on the Pakistani government and international community for food, water, and shelter.
This camp became Ahmed’s home for the next 11 years.
Throughout this time, Ahmed had no access to education and did not learn to read or write. When he reached the age of 15 in 1987, he was approached by two groups of people both promising him education, training, and a purpose in life.
The first were the Americans who armed and trained him to fight against the Soviets who were occupying his homeland. The second were a group of Islamic clerics paid for by the Saudis who promised him free education.
On the one hand, Ahmed was shown a skill and trade craft to become a warrior. On the other, he was taught an extreme interpretation of the Koran where jihad was necessary to preserve a pure Islamic state.
With these skills, Ahmed first went to war with the Soviets. After the Soviets were booted from power in 1989, Ahmed prepared for a second war against the communist government in Kabul the Soviets left behind. Then, Ahmed waged a third war with the post-communist Islamic state, until he and his brothers finally won and ruled Afghanistan from 1994-2002. They called themselves the Taliban.
For Ahmed’s entire life, all he has known is war and an extreme interpretation of his religion.
Now, the possibility of peace talks with Ahmed are on the table. And I should mention, Ahmed is a fictional character. But his story is illustrative of many members of the Taliban.
So, is it possible to negotiate a peace settlement with Ahmed and his brothers?
These are men who provided refuge to Al Qaeda operatives, tortured their people, stoned women to death for being raped, poisoned little girls for going to school, and killed countless innocent civilians and international coalition service men and women.
Some say hell no. They argue that Ahmed can’t be trusted, must pay for his crimes, and would only try to rise to power again and resume the oppressive rule of the mid 1990s that provided a sanctuary for terrorism.
But others – myself included – say yes to peace. I may abhor Ahmed’s actions, but if we don’t engage with him, then Ahmed will feel more alienated and more willing to fight to the death – and at all costs. In short, if Ahmed sees no future, the war rages on.
I wrote about the importance of forgiveness in peace settlements in my blog post about Flat Henry. And this is where forgiveness is given its deepest consideration. We, the international community and much more importantly the people of Afghanistan, need not forgive the Taliban completely, but we need to forgive enough for any type of peace talks to have any amount of success.
As former ISAF commander, General Stan MacChrystal, said, “We can’t kill and capture our way out of Afghanistan.” And that’s the new reality of war and peace. Because wars are no longer fought until the bitter end, all parties of a conflict must have a seat at the table and a role in society (to include women, but that’s another blog post!).
For readers who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, the thought of forgiveness may seem impossible. But if you give Ahmed a real identity and understand the road he walked starting as a four year-old little boy, you can feel a crumb of empathy.
And if we feel empathy, we can start the process of forgiveness, which is a key component to lasting peace.
Post a comment: What does peace mean to you in 2013? Does hearing Ahmed’s story change your views of the Taliban? Is a 21st century definition of peace possible in Afghanistan in our lifetimes?
Your challenge: Is there anyone in your life that you’re at war with? Do you have tensions with a co-worker, a neighbor, a sibling, or a spouse? Can you take a minute to understand their path and why they have the views they have? Can you feel some empathy and set the intention to start the process of forgiveness?
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Remember, it’s the little changes we make in our daily life that brings greater peace to the whole.
¹Saving face, or preserving one’s honor or dignity, is a key part of Afghan identity. Most Afghans adhere to a strict code of moral conduct, called Pashtunwali. Chief among the codes is nang, or honor. This means the worst thing you can do is disrespect an Afghan in front of his buddy, or certainly the world stage. So, here we see the Afghan government lost face because of the sign and the Taliban lost face because they were forced to take the sign down.
²Feature photo from: www.opinion-makers.org
For an inspirational glimpse of the real Afghanistan, watch this: http://vimeo.com/31426899.