Kim Sengupta: A negotiated settlement will mean tough compromises

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Talks have been going on – directly and indirectly – between the government of Hamid Karzai and various insurgent factions for a while. The general consensus in Afghanistan is that at some stage there will have to be a negotiated settlement to the war. The salient question is just how much of a compromise will have to be made to cut such a deal.

The constant timelines for withdrawal given by Barack Obama, David Cameron and other American and European politicians had convinced President Karzai that the West's appetite for "staying the course" is rapidly waning and he has little choice but to come to a peace deal with the Taliban and other Islamist groups. It seems very likely that such an agreement would lead to sacrifices in the field of human rights, especially those of women, and the imposition of some form of Sharia law. There are already plenty of MPs in the Afghan government who are prepared to accept these measures and the position of Karzai himself is increasingly equivocal.

At a meeting with the President last month, Rachel Reid, an analyst for Human Rights Watch, asked whether, in the event of a peace agreement, there would be vetting to exclude people from power if they have a record of abusing women and attacking schools. His answer, according to her, was: "What would you choose? You could choose to save a child's life, or you could choose to keep a child in school."

Despite the patchy nature of progress on female emancipation, there is a lot to lose. Before the fall of the Taliban there were almost no girls in school. Now, according to Unicef, the figure has risen to 2.5 million. Only 13 per cent of females are literate, but the figure is rising.

There are signs that Western politicians would be prepared to jettison issues of human rights to get a semblance of a deal and an exit path for their troops. Increasingly one hears the refrain: "We did not go to Afghanistan so that Afghan girls can go to school."

However, even if the West is prepared to cut and run, Karzai faces potent opposition from those who see his policy towards the insurgency as dangerous and destabilising. Amarullah Saleh and Hashim Atmar resigned from their respective posts as head of the NDS, the intelligence service, and the interior ministry in protest at the President's seeming haste to compromise.

Saleh is constantly visiting universities and high schools telling students that their future will be jeopardised. He is picking up strong support. He also increasingly has the backing of the Afghan army. The road to appeasement is unlikely to be a smooth one.