Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Enemy of the Enemy of My Enemy…Oh, Forget It

Via Juan Cole comes the rather jaw-dropping news that Mullah Omar will be dropped from the U.S. State Department terrorist list.

By U.S. standards, they don’t get much more terroristy than Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban and onetime leader of the hard-core Islamic fundamentalist Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, who blew up Buddhas, burka’d the female population, instituted sharia law, and harbored bin Laden until he was deposed by the 2002 U.S.-led invasion.

Recognizing him as a political actor in good standing makes the whole deadly, six-year, multi-billion dollar effort to bring freedom and democracy to Afghanistan look like some kind of bad joke.

Of course, rehabilitating Mullah Omar is all about the reopening of the negotiation track with the Taliban that has been brewing for the last few months and is being executed by our new CENTCOM chief, David Petraeus.

However, Omar should not start measuring the presidential office in Kabul for new drapes just yet. I don’t think the United States is sincere about bringing him into the big tent unless he brings the head of Osama bin Laden with him—and that’s not likely.

If events in Iraq are any guide, the invite to Mullah Omar is part of the U.S. strategy to get various Taliban groupings to start talking to the United States instead of conspiring between themselves and wedge one of the weaker commanders away from the rest with the promise that the U.S. will give him a better deal than he’ll get as part of a Taliban reconquest. It’s a stretch, but I’m voting for the terminally vicious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (interesting point that Mullah Omar’s coming off the State Department’s terrorist black list but Hekmatyar’s apparently still on; wonder if the U.S. is trying to get into Hekmatyar’s head with that one) as Afghanistan’s Maliki.

With Hekmatyar ensconced in the presidential palace, the Pashtun insurgency split, and the Tajiks and other ethnic group buddying up to the only Taliban who isn’t going to cut their heads off, at least for the time being, the U.S. military hopes to be presiding over an uneasy peace or, from another perspective, another billion-dollar Mexican stand-off that gives the United States the decisive role of power broker in Afghanistan.

And Mullah Omar comes away from the talks empty-handed as the U.S. tries to grind him down through direct military operations, assassinations, and the assistance of Afghan and Pakistani forces.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the factor that militates against this rosy scenario is the fact that Pakistan isn’t Iran.

Iran is a force for stability in Iraq, reining in the Dawa Party and al-Sadr, since it has the confidence that its propinquity and political and economic reach guarantee that Maliki, a sometime U.S. client, will be a full-time ally of Iran.

Pakistan, on the other hand, weak, divided, teetering on the edge of political and economic collapse, beset with a Pashtun insurgency it is more interested in accommodating than destroying, and precious little power to project will see little profit if Kabul is in control of a renegade Taliban with a pro-U.S. and Iranian tilt.

Pakistan—and, for that matter, Saudi Arabia—have too little stake in a stable Pakistan and little interest in eliminating or marginalizing Mullah Omar. It’s likely that the Pashtun insurgency will keep the pot boiling some time to come despite the negotiation initiatives.

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