Just a day before the spectacular arrests of Muslims under the Anti-terrorism Act, a McMaster professor now working in Afghanistan was in Ottawa to tell Canadian officials that our war against the Taliban is ill advised.
Dr. Seddiq Weera, an adviser to the Kabul-based National Commission on Strengthening Peace in Afghanistan, is in a position to know. After visiting the Taliban, he concludes that the insurgents are ready to negotiate and that continuing efforts to keep the losing sides in the civil war from participating fully in Afghan life will only intensify the violence.
In a recent telephone call, the soft- spoken peace studies prof, now on a brief visit home to see his family in Mississauga, says he has had better luck talking about reconciliation possibilities to officials in Kabul than he has had in Ottawa.
Ten out of 25 ministers in the Afghan cabinet, he says, support his proposal for a national-level process of dialogue and national reconciliation leading to the resolution of regional grievances and a peace agreement.
As one Northern Alliance leader confided to him recently, "Good or bad, we may have to live with [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar.'
Weera, a Canadian citizen of Afghan origin, comes with some impressive credentials. He was jailed twice, at one point for four years, by the Soviet-based regime that ruled Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power.
His work for the commission has taken him on risky journeys to discover how former fighters for the Taliban, as well as current insurgents in the hills, can be reconciled to the new regime.
He has found that unfinished business from the five-year civil war in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 pitting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and the forces of warlord-ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a major barrier to peace and reconciliation. "There are people who are unhappy with the government, and they have issues that are related to being treated unjustly, unfairly."
He argues that the 2001 Bonn Agreement that helped put Hamid Karzai and the Northern Alliance in power made insufficient allowances for dealing with the losing side, setting up a situation where they became "excluded and marginalized." Winners of the civil war became the "angels" while the losers were deemed "evil," even though unsavoury and hard-line elements including war criminals have existed in all the fighting factions, he says.
Ideologues in the Taliban and al Qaeda, Weera maintains, represent a minority among the violent opponents of Kabul. He says it's a mistake for Canadian and U.S. military and political leaders to paint all the insurgents with the terrorist brush.
"That distinction should be made, between those who have national and Afghan issues and can be accommodated through peace and dialogue, and those who are terrorists and hardliners and drug lords,' Weera says.
In conversations with insurgents, he has discovered a range of motives. "I put the question to them: "What will it take for all of you to return and lead peaceful lives?' And that was where I found out there are issues that can be settled within the current system.
"Not all of them are asking that all internationals should leave. They want a safe return. What they mean by that is "We don't feel safe from our former enemy; when we come back they are going to conspire against us and shoot us from behind. We don't want to surrender; we want to go back with dignity. ''
At the core of Weera's proposal is a new commission with a broader mandate than the one he works for. "Why not invest in a national peace initiative that can be a preventive measure? It will reduce the hostilities, isolate the terrorists and reduce the number of troops needed."
Afghanistan is going to require assistance in peace-building in the form of expertise and financial help, he says. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has urged him to wait until 2008, when something called the Afghan National Development Strategy is slated to begin.
Weera is not sure that either Afghanis or the sons and daughters of Canadians fighting in Kandahar can afford the delay. "It is totally immoral to wait until more and more people are killed."