April 16th, 2010
07:09 AM ET

Can lessons from other nations show way forward in Afghanistan?

Zieba Shorish-Shamley offers a history lesson to people who say a peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan is possible.

She asks them to remember how the Taliban massacred thousands of Afghans, beat women who walked alone in public, stoned to death women accused of adultery and tried to bend everyone to their fanatical form of Islam.

That is how she remembers life under the Taliban. Only force can stop the leaders of such a brutal movement, says Shorish-Shamley, a native of Afghanistan.

In early May, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government will invite a group of people, including tribal elders and parliament members, to discuss ways to reconcile with the Taliban.

“The leaders of the Taliban are not going to come around,” says Shorish-Shamley, founder and director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan.

“Do you think Hitler and the rest of the Nazis would have come to the table to negotiate not killing innocent Jews and invading everyone else’s country?”

Shorish-Shamley takes her cues on dealing with the Taliban from World War II. But some look to other examples from history and get another message: peace is possible in Afghanistan if leaders learn from other countries that found a way forward after years of internal warfare.

In countries as diverse as El Salvador, Bosnia and the United States, warring sides have fought civil wars that claimed thousands of victims. But leaders in each country took specific steps to reconcile warring sides, scholars say.

Afghans can do the same if they don’t just think of making peace with the Taliban. They must also make peace with their victims, says Ernesto Verdeja, author of “Unchopping a Tree,” a book that looks at reconciliation in the aftermath of war and genocide.

He says countries that take the symbolic route to reconciliation - issuing public apologies, holding days of remembrances - won’t be able to move forward.

“Apologies are not enough,” he says. “Reconciliation efforts can sometimes emphasize the reconciliation part instead of the justice part.”

He says that pursuing justice means naming specific crimes; allowing victims to publicly confront those that hurt them; providing medical and material support to victims and their families, he says.

“That’s tricky stuff because some victims will demand some form of punishment,” he says.

A lesson from El Salvador
Sometimes the desire for peace outweighs people’s need for retribution. That’s what happened in El Salvador, says Thomas R. Mockaitis, a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “The ‘New’ Terrorism: Myths and Reality.”

The Central American country was ravaged by a 12-year civil war that started in 1980 when leftist guerrillas fought against a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. An estimated 75,000 Salvadorans died and thousands disappeared, Mockaitis says.

Yet the guerrillas and the government signed a peace pact in 1992. The group that once represented the leftist guerrillas now works within the political system; it governs El Salvador.

The Arena Party, which represents the country’s former military rulers, also remains a player in the country’s politics, he says.

There are still simmering resentments in El Salvador over the murdered and missing from the civil war, but people were exhausted by the violence, Mockaitis says.

“There’s a consensus that, for the sake of peace and stability, it’s probably better to at least leave retribution to heaven and move on,’’ Mockaitis says.

Those individuals that preach this message, however, can discover that their harshest critics are members of their own community, says Fatmire Feka, an Albanian Muslim from Kosovo, a former region in Serbia that declared its independence in 2008.

Feka says her family was attacked by Serbians during the war in Kosovo. She says she lost her older brother and sister to Serbian paramilitary forces. But she decided to become a peace activist and bring together Muslim and Serbian youth who wanted a better future.

Some Muslims, though, couldn’t let go of the past, Feka says.

Her former Muslim neighbors asked her why she wanted to bring back people who had killed their family and friends. Feka says her mother slapped her in anger one day when she heard that her daughter had led a peace march.

“When you start to work for peace in an area where people have died and are still grieving, it’s difficult,” Feka says. “Everyone perceived me as being deviant.” (Read more about Fatmire Feka's journey from hate to peace)

Why reconciliation couldn’t work in Vietnam
Reconciliation is impossible, though, in other countries, no matter how courageous some people are, another historian says.

Andrew Wiest, a military historian, says reconciliation is impossible when one side in a civil war is driven by an ideology that doesn’t accept compromises.

North Vietnam’s communist rulers were governed by such a philosophy during the Vietnam War, says Wiest, author of “Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN.”

When the North Vietnamese finally defeated South Vietnam in 1975, they had no interest in reintegrating former ARVN members (South Vietnamese soldiers) and civil servants who worked for the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government, according to Wiest. The North Vietnamese killed tens of thousands of former ARVN soldiers and other supporters of the former U.S.-backed government.

“Hundreds of thousands were put into re-education camps,” Wiest says. “Some of them were in there for months and some were in there for decades.”

The North Vietnamese felt that all former supporters of the U.S.-backed regime were so corrupt that they had to be purged from society, Wiest says.

“If you go to Vietnam today, there’s going to be an underclass of people who are begging on the street and just getting by,” says Wiest. “A lot of those people are leftovers from ARVN.”

Those leaders who see themselves as revolutionaries overthrowing a corrupt political system think change must be paid for in blood, according to Wiest.

“Revolutions usually have to purge somebody,” he says. “They have a real hard time admitting that their enemies were their brothers.”

In the United States
One country that was able to avoid this was the United States during its Civil War, another historian says.

The war between the North and the South featured some of the bloodiest battles in U.S. military history. Many people on both sides hated the other with a passionate intensity, says Jay Winik, author of “April 1865” and “The Great Upheaval.”

Yet it could have been worse if the North and South didn’t have such leaders as President Lincoln and Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Southern armies, Winik says.

Winik says that Southern soldiers could have prolonged the war by retreating to the woods and becoming guerrilla fighters. Northern leaders could have prolonged the bitterness by unleashing a wave of retribution that would have featured the mass hangings of Southern leaders.

“We would have lived in a far different country,” says Winik.

But Winik says that Lincoln insisted on lenient surrender terms. He urged Northerners to accept Southerners as their fellow countrymen again. And Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Northern commander, extended gracious surrender terms to Lee’s armies.

“Lincoln was not a hater,” Winik says. “Make no mistake - he waged total war against the South. But as the war was nearing to a close, he said that we must become countrymen again. He said sternly that there would be no hanging, no retribution.”

Lee delivered the same message to Southerners, Winik says.

“He was a fierce warrior but also man of his word and a man of great honor,” Winik says. “He never allowed people to speak ill of Lincoln. He told the South it’s time to rebuild. He was looking ahead not backward.”

Could such leaders emerge in Afghanistan from the Taliban and other groups in Afghanistan? Maybe.

But Winik says the ability of leaders like Lee and Lincoln to envision a future without warfare is crucial. Those types of magnanimous leaders could make the difference between peace and endless bloodshed, Winik says.

“Lee once said that I surrendered as much to Lincoln’s goodness,” Winik says, “as I did to Grant’s armies.”

Photo: Around 30 Taliban militant fighters, standing with their weapons, surrender to Afghan troops in Herat last month.

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Filed under: Karzai • Taliban • Understanding Afghanistan
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