Finally, we’re all talking about talking to the Taliban

“I told you so” is an unbecoming political posture, but NDP leader Jack Layton could certainly be forgiven such thoughts when the subject turns to negotiating with the Taliban.

Prime Minister Harper and his Government once thought it clever to ridicule Mr. Layton’s early call for talks. He didn’t understand the real world they said – next he’d propose having tea with Osama Bin Laden. But now Mr. Harper insists that “it has always been our position that [talks with insurgents are] part of an eventual solution, and that it’s not simply military action alone.”[i]

Well, would that it were so.  In 2007 Mr. Harper’s Foreign Minister, Maxime Bernier, put it this way: “Canada does not negotiate with terrorists, for any reason.”[ii]

In 2006, while others were insisting that wars end through negotiation, the Government aligned itself with commentators from Rex Murphy[iii] to theWestern Standard (going after Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh for adding his voice to the call for negotiations) [iv] who managed only to deride the idea. The Globe and Mail editorialized that “if there were a realistic prospect that all sides shared this goal [of reconstruction and meeting the basic needs of Afghans], Canadian soldiers would not be fighting in Afghanistan”[v] – and since we are fighting the Taliban, was the subtext, why would we negotiate with them?

Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Canada joined Mr. Bernier and the Harper Government to cast the refusal to talk as a general principle: there cannot be “peace talks between an elected government and heavily-armed gangs of militant school-burners.”[vi]

But, happily, that’s all in the past; the point now is to welcome the reversal and to encourage the Harper Government in its new willingness to support talks and to help, as it now says Canada will, provide Taliban negotiators with safe passage to negotiating venues.

Mr. Harper is right to voice the cautions that he added to his support for talks;[vii] these are cautions that advocates of negotiations have been noting all along – especially about the importance of preserving the advances in civil and human rights that at least some elements of the Afghan population have enjoyed since the fall of the Taliban Government in late 2001. But there is a fundamental difference between clear negotiating principles and objectives, on the one hand, and negotiating preconditions on the other.

It is a distinction that was made clear in President Barak Obama’s support for talks. He had already signed off on support for talks earlier this year, “as long as Taliban leaders, at the end of the process, agreed to renounce violence, lay down their arms, and pledge fidelity to the Afghan Constitution.”[viii] These are obviously essential conditions for a peace agreement – they need to be in place “at the end of the process,” not as precondition to starting the process. The requirement that the fighting stops and that all parties commit to the rule of law is a minimum one for any peace agreement.  

The requirement for support for the constitution cannot preclude the possibility that the process could yield an amended constitution (there is, after all, plenty of argument for a constitution that allows for greater decentralization of government), but the fundamental point is that an end to fighting and respect for the rule of law are the aim of the negotiations, not a precondition for them.

Active support for the current talks about talks is a major step forward. This is very, very early in the reconciliation process. There is a lot of talking now to be done, and it doesn’t take many visits to Afghanistan to recognize that it will involve a lot of that tea.  Canadians encouraged by the move toward talks might want to raise a cup in honor of Jack Layton.  

(Published in Embassy Magazine, 10 November 2010 –


[i] Jonathan Montpetit, “Canadians would let Taliban leaders get to Kabul peace talks,” The Record, Waterloo Region, Canadian Press, 23 October 2010.

 [ii] Canadian Press, “”General vows: ‚ÄòI don’t talk to the Taliban’,” The Record, Waterloo Region, Canadian Press, 31 August 2007.

 [iii] CBC News, The National, “Why are we in Afghanistan?” (

 [iv] “Dosanjh: negotiate with terrorists,” Western, Sept. 1/06 (

 [v] “With the Taliban, Globe and Mail, Sept. 1/06 (

 [vi] Omar Samad, “The Afghan mission is not a failure,” Globe and Mail, Sept. 6/06.

 [vii] John Ibbitson and Steven Chase, “Taliban deal would need to meet strict conditions, PM says,” The Globe and Mail, 23 October 2010.

 [viii] Thom Shanker, David E. Sanger, and Eric Schmitt, “US Aids Taliban to Attend Talks on Making Peace,” New York Times writer Sanger and others in the Pakistanpal Blog, 14 October 2010.

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