Thursday, November 13, 2008

Better Get Used to the Idea of Negotiating with Mullah Omar

The report about Patrick Moon announcing that the State Department intends to take Mullah Omar off the terrorist blacklist seemed to originate the Iran media—not a paragon of accuracy--and quickly ran around the world.

The piece said:

WASHINGTON: The US agrees to drop the name of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar from the terror list ahead of talks with the insurgents, an official says.

“US intends to remove Mullah Omar from the black list in a bid to provide a suitable seedbed for holding contacts with the Taliban,” said, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick S Moon. Moon added that during his upcoming visit to Kabul, he will fully support the idea of negotiated settlement with the Taliban militants to end the violence in the region. He also reiterated that the talks with the Taliban insurgents were possible within the Afghan Constitution, Press TV reported.

Press TV is the Iranian English-language media outlet.

But there is some basis. Possibly, Iranian journalists engaged in some imaginative embroidery of a report from AFP covering Moon’s remarks on October 23:

Asked if talks could encompass Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of another radical faction, who are both on a US blacklist, Moon said such men would be dealt with on a “case by case basis”.

“Mullah Omar has been a very outspoken, very violent opponent of the people of Afghanistan,” he said.

On October 30, the Pentagon poured cold water over the possibility of Mullah Omar joining the negotiation process (emphasis added):

Q Would U.S. support for these types of contacts initiated by the Afghans hold even if it was Mullah Omar?

MR. MORRELL: This question's been asked and answered a thousand times. No, we are not talking about reconciling with Mullah Omar. I don't think we -- listen, but ultimately this is the Afghan government who has to make determinations of these things.

We as a government do not believe that Mullah Omar is somebody you reconcile with. Mullah Omar has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands, based upon the support that he provided Osama bin Laden. So we do not reconcile with al Qaeda.

We are talking about reconciling with insurgents within Afghanistan, not foreign fighters, but insurgents within Afghanistan.

Q I wanted to follow up on Jim's question about Mullah Omar. What part of Taliban do you think you can do reconciliation with?

MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to go through a list of who you can reconcile and who you can't reconcile.

I think Mullah Omar, who provided a safe haven and a base from which Osama bin Laden could train terrorists, who eventually killed thousands of Americans, is not somebody we're prepared to reconcile with.


Clearly, the United States has no appetite for Mullah Omar. But the argument that Mullah Omar—who actually ran the country as the Commander of the Faithful when it was Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—is a “foreign fighter” (or, in Mr. Moon's words, "an opponent of the people of Afghanistan") and therefore not a suitable interlocutor in Afghan affairs simply isn’t going to hold water.

Note that the denunciation is couched grudgingly in the terms that it’s up to the Afghan government. And Hamed Karzai has already guaranteed Mullah Omar’s safety if he joins the talks.

Pakistan’s top media outlet, Dawn, reported on October 4:

In an exclusive interview to Geo television channel, Karzai said, “Through Pakistan television channel Geo I propose Mullah Omar to get back to Afghanistan as I will be wholly and solely responsible for his security and I shall be answerable to the whole of the world on his behalf.”

Indeed, the Karzai government has been inviting Mullah Omar to join talks as far back as 2005—and the DoD has been slapping them down just as long.

So, I would imagine the situation is that the DoD doesn’t want Mullah Omar involved, never wanted him involved, and in the past, when military victory and the destruction of the Taliban were the order of the day, the awkward fact of Karzai wanting to negotiate with Mullah Omar could be swept under the rug--and dutifully ignored by the Western media.

But now that the negotiation track is opening up, what DoD wants doesn’t automatically go.

The State Department, with the task of dealing with the Karzai government, understands that if the Afghans insist that Mullah Omar be involved in the reconciliation process it is difficult for the United States to refuse to provide its support—which would presumably involve an undertaking by the United States not to bundle Mullah Omar onto a helicopter for trial at Guantanamo or the United States if he came out of hiding i.e. taking him off the blacklist.

To give an idea of the gathering strength of the negotiation track, Pakistan’s hardline nationalist newspaper, The Pakistan Daily, provided this account of incendiary remarks by the guy who runs the North West Frontier Provinces, Pakistan's front line in dealing with the Pashtun insurgency and Taliban safe havens. Note the rather pointed observation that, if there's any Pakistan leader who has a weak local base and relies on foreign power for his clout, it's Karzai and not Mullah Omar.

Owais Ghani, who governs the North West Frontier Province and its adjoining tribal areas, is the most prominent figure to date to publicly advocate holding talks with militant commanders leading the insurgency against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

"They have to talk to Mullah Omar, certainly – not maybe, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani group," Mr Ghani told The Daily Telegraph in an interview in Peshawar.

"The solution, the bottom line, is that political stability will only come to Afghanistan when all political power groups, irrespective of the length of their beard, are given their just due share in the political dispensation in Afghanistan."

Mr. Ghani said that all three militant commanders (Mullah Omar, Hekmatyar, and Haqqani—ed). were in Afghanistan.

"They are a power group that has to be preserved to seek political solutions. We would not destroy them because then you are contributing to further instability," he said. He denied that Pakistan "wants the Taliban back". He added: "No sir, we have no favorites in Afghanistan."

Mr. Ghani said that West must accept that the "Mullah is a political reality".

Mr Ghani said: "You are headed for failure. I think Afghanistan is practically lost. It is compounding our problems."

The governor added that the West must hold talks with the Taliban as al-Qaeda was regrouping from Iraq to Afghanistan. Russia had begun to supply weapons to militants and that the Afghans were intolerant of foreigners on their soil and so were staging "a national uprising".

"To eliminate the Taliban you have to slaughter half the Afghan nation," said Mr Ghani.

Mr. Ghani said that Mr. Karzai "does not represent any power group – tribal, religious or political and therefore like the people in his government he is dependant on foreign power. He is therefore an obstacle to dialogue and peace."

He described Pakistan's military strategy as one of containment. "We are not looking for quick fixes. We want to hold it to a level where we can just tolerate it until Afghanistan settles down," said Mr. Ghani.

When asked about allegations that Pakistan has used the Taliban to retain its influence in Afghanistan, Mr. Ghani replied: "We could counter that by saying India uses the Northern Alliance."

Well! Ghani, by the way, is apparently not a random blowhard. He’s Pakistan’s man for integrated management of intractable political, diplomatic, and military problems on the borderlands, having come to the NWFP from success in Balochistan, Pakistan’s other wild and angry western province that harbors a serious separatist movement and prickly relations with neighboring Iran.

So it looks like pretty much everybody thinks its necessary to talk with Mullah Omar. It will be interesting to see if the Department of Defense, even under the direction of arch-realist Secretary Gates, is willing to field that hot potato.

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