Canada opposes Taliban talks before end of violence

As the Afghan and U.S. governments keep trying to negotiate palatable terms for reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban, the Canadian government maintains that while violence against civilians continues, the Taliban remains a terrorist organization.

No evidence Taliban prepared to stop attacks, Chris Alexander says

Parliamentary secretary Chris Alexander, seen here while serving as Canada's ambassador in Afghanistan in 2005, says there can be no reconciliation with the Taliban while the group's campaign of violence continues. (Terry Pedwell/Canadian Press)

As the Afghan and U.S. governments keep trying to negotiate palatable terms for reconciliation talks with the Taliban, Canada maintains that while violence against civilians continues, the Taliban remains a terrorist organization.

"It's always been a precondition … that those who want to take part in reconciliation lay aside their weapons, lay aside their campaign of violence, agree to live under the laws of Afghanistan and the constitution of Afghanistan and then start the hard process of reintegration," the parliamentary secretary to Canada's defence minister said Wednesday.

Chris Alexander, himself a former Canadian ambassador to the country, said that recent attacks on civilians, including women and children, are evidence that the Taliban is not prepared to end its violent campaign.

"Yes, beyond those red lines there are deals that can be made, there are issues that can be discussed," he told CBC News. However, "you can't negotiate and fight at the same time."

The Afghan Taliban — which has maintained a government in exile also known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — was removed from power after NATO allies invaded the country in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 

The Afghan Taliban was replaced with a democratically elected government, currently led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the Taliban maintained a leadership and organizational structure even out of power.

In May, Canada listed the Afghan Taliban as a banned terrorist group — the first NATO-allied country to use its domestic laws to outlaw the group.

Fight for political legitimacy

Earlier this week the Taliban opened an embassy of sorts in Doha, Qatar, which is now at the centre of discussions around the terms for reconciliation negotiations.

Karzai opposed a U.S. effort at peace talks with the Taliban, and after a ribbon-cutting opening ceremony Tuesday called the Doha headquarters a "political office."  The idea of the U.S. meeting directly with the Taliban appeared to challenge the Karzai government's leadership role in the reconciliation process.

President Barack Obama acknowledged Karzai's "enormous mistrust" after so many years of conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, continues to try to get the Taliban to come to the table and talk about ending the war.

On Thursday, the Taliban proposed a prisoner exchange with the U.S. that could free an American soldier in return for five senior operatives currently held at Guantanamo Bay.

Alexander said Wednesday that Canada wants the Karzai government to take the lead in any talks with the Taliban.

"Everyone agrees that there needs to be a peace and that reconciliation is one of the paths to peace in Afghanistan. There's no debate about that among allies. There's no debate about that in the region," the parliamentary secretary said.

"So far we haven't seen a serious effort or a serious offer to engage in reconciliation from the Taliban. We hope that will change. The evidence so far is to the contrary," he said.

Afghan troops now in charge

Moves towards reconciliation also sit uneasily with some family members of Canadian soldiers killed during the conflict.

While Canada will continue its financial support in the future, Canadian troops are set to leave Afghanistan at the end of their current training mission in March 2014. Other NATO allies, including the U.S., are considering some kind of bridging force as the country's shaky transition continues.

Afghan troops are now taking the lead in combat, including no longer being able to count on military backup from ISAF forces when they run into trouble, as they did in a recent incident near Kandahar in late May when Afghan forces suffered casualties but NATO forces in the same area reportedly did not intervene.

"In coming months, as we determine just exactly what it means that Afghanistan and the national security forces have taken on security and defence roles, we’ll have to work out all of the tactical decisions that go behind that," Canada's Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson said Wednesday during an announcement of a new deployment of Canadian troops to Haiti.

"I think the more important thing is that symbolically they have taken on this role and we will continue to support them right up until the last troop is there," the general said.

"It makes me angry that the Taliban continue to attack communities, to engage ISAF and Afghan soldiers with the worst kind of tactics, with the blood loss that seems unabated," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said at the same press conference.  

"It does, of course, call into question the way in which the Afghan government itself has embraced its responsibility and its ability to conduct security operations in the future," the minister said.  "We need a full court press at this critical time from the Afghan government in support of all of its security forces as it takes over this important responsibility."

Was 'Taliban Jack' right?

The very idea of sitting down with the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war was once mocked by Harper's Conservatives, who dismissed outright the late NDP leader Jack Layton for suggesting it might work as far back as 2006.

"[Calling for negotiations] got Jack Layton lots of attacks in the media in English Canada, calling him 'Taliban Jack' for having dared say you have to talk to all sides and have them all around the table," current NDP Leader Tom Mulcair reminded reporters Thursday.

"Well, guess what? That was the only way forward to peace. That's what we said in the NDP."

"The Taliban have to recognize they're not going to fight their way back to power," Alexander maintained. 

"Let's not say that [reconciliation is] succeeding … when we know perfectly well that the Taliban are still fighting and still engaging in a widespread campaign of deadly terrorist attacks. That's why we listed them as a terrorist organization."