Riding in the Taliban taxi
It was two in the morning, and the shops and markets of Dubai, open late during Ramadan, had finally closed. Realizing how far away my hotel was, I stopped walking after half an hour and caught the only taxi that came past.
I sat down next to the driver in what I can only describe as a religious shrine with wheels. Every bit of space was covered by decorative cloths and pendants with Koran verses on them.
The driver, whose beard was much longer than mine, spoke as little Arabic as I did. His English was even worse. He scowled at the empty road ahead. But still, we talked.
"Where are you from?" I asked, suspecting the answer.
"Afghanistan," he replied, pronouncing the "gh" in the back of his throat.
"Are you Pashtun?" I asked, remembering that the Taliban were mostly from that tribe. He nodded.
I thought for a second, then decided to tell him: "American."
We gave each other a long, serious look. Our countries were bitter enemies. (It was 2002 and the bombs were still falling.) Maybe he wanted to kill me. Maybe he was afraid I'd kill him.
Suddenly, our stare ended in a burst of laughter at how ironic this all was. We put our preconceptions aside. He told me about his two children. I told him about my family in the U.S. The ride was soon over, and nobody was killed. The 20 dirham (€5) cab fare was all that mattered.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must have had a similar experience in The Hague on Tuesday, at the United Nations conference on the future of Afghanistan. She said :
We must ... support efforts by the government of Afghanistan to separate the extremists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban from those who joined their ranks not out of conviction, but out of desperation. This is, in fact, the case for a majority of those fighting with the Taliban. They should be offered an honorable form of reconciliation and reintegration into a peaceful society if they are willing to abandon violence, break with Al Qaeda, and support the constitution.
Clinton spoke of a "collective inability to implement a clear and sustained strategy" (translation: "we're failing") — and mentioned America's new effort to send another 17,000 soldiers as well as 4,000 military trainers to help build the Afghan army and police force. The hard part — getting other countries to send more troops and money — will be left to President Obama when he visits NATO leaders this week. He may have to repeat the speech he gave in Berlin last year.
Yet one country at the UN conference stepped right up — one the U.S. hasn't talked to in 30 years. It was Iran. Clinton reacted with surprise and caution, but also with friendly words: "We will look for ways to cooperate with them." Senior diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke met with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, while Clinton had a communiqué delivered directly to the Iranian delegation instead of through Swiss intermediaries.
It's hard to say whether there'll be progress in Afghanistan by August, when elections are held, or by October, when the war will enter its ninth year. But by November, 30 years after the U.S. and Iran broke off diplomatic relations, the two countries may have learned to talk again.