Sunday, April 18, 2010

Afghanistan -- A chance

Last fall I opined that the Afghani conflict against the insurgent Taliban was an internal civil conflict that was not and should not be the concern of the U.S. Military (Afghanistan: Never America's War). In an interview with The Sunday Times of London, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar confirms my assertion, while also creating an opening for peace in that troubled region, and a chance for American troops to return home.
At a meeting held at night deep inside Taliban-controlled territory, the Taliban leaders told this newspaper that their military campaign had only three objectives: the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners and the restoration of security.
Obama himself articulated three objectives for America's military campaign in Afghanistan in his December 2009 speech to the cadets at West Point, when he announced a military buildup in that country:
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan.  We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven.  We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.  And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future. 
It is important to note that al Qaeda--the terrorist movement that remains the justification behind American military adventures in Afghanistan--is not a movement borne of the Taliban but is as foreign to Afghan soil as Americans, being the inspiration and creation of Osama bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia to parents of Yemeni descent.  Bin Laden is the sole connection between Afghanistan and al Qaeda, as the Afghan guerilla war against the invading Soviet army gave bin Laden his first opportunity to engage in jihad.
Son of a wealthy construction magnate, bin Ladin had taken to the religious sermons of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian and disciple of Sayyid Qutb. While he participated in few actual battles in Afghanistan, bin Laden became known for his generous funding of the jihad against the Soviets.

However, bin Laden's ambitions extended beyond the boarders of Afghanistan, and he began to develop a complex international organization. He set up a financial support network known as the "Golden Chain," comprised mainly of financiers from Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states. Using this immense new fund, bin Laden and Azzam created a "Bureau of Services," which helped channel recruits for the jihad into Afghanistan. With Saudi Arabia and the United States pouring in billions of dollars worth of secret assistance to rebels in Afghanistan, the jihad against the Soviets was constantly gaining momentum.
The link between Afghanistan and Al Qaeda went dormant in 1989, after the Soviets pulled out of that country, and bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia:
When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in early 1989, bin Laden and Azzam decided that their new organization should not dissolve. They established what they called a base (al Qaeda) as a potential general headquarters for future jihad. However, bin Laden, now the clear emir of al Qaeda, and Azzam differed on where the organization's future objectives should lie. Azzam favored continued fighting in Afghanistan until there was a true Islamist government, while bin Laden wanted to prepare al Qaeda to fight anywhere in the world. When Azzam was killed in 1989, bin Laden assumed full charge of al Qaeda.
This aspect of al Qaeda history takes on new importance in light of the Taliban's potential peace overtures, for the very simple reason that Obama and Mullah Omar might actually agree on two of three military objectives: removal of foreigners, and securing Afghanistan and its borders. Both sides want a secure Afghani government, and while Obama focuses on denying al Qaeda safe haven within Afghanistan, the political reality is that, if al Qaeda is expelled from Afghanistan, the rationale for a continued American presence evaporates; expell al Qaeda and all foreign forces will be happy to return home.

If the Taliban's statements are sincere and credible, the only real sticking point between Obama and the Taliban should be the matter of making Sharia Law Afghan Law.  If the Taliban's statements are sincere and credible, the only major obstacle to negotiating that point is the US policy prohibiting direct talks with the Taliban.  Taliban sincerity is and should always be presumed problematic, but the Taliban statements to The Sunday Times are certainly in keeping with their articulated three objectives:
Looking back on five years in government until they were ousted after the attacks in America on September 11, 2001, the Taliban leaders said their movement had become too closely involved in politics.
Abdul Rashid said: “We didn’t have the capability to govern the country and we were surprised by how things went. We lacked people with either experience or technical expertise in government.
“Now all we’re doing is driving the invader out. We will leave politics to civil society and return to our madrasahs [religious schools].”
The Taliban’s position emerged as an American official said colleagues in Washington were discussing whether President Barack Obama could reverse a long-standing US policy and permit direct American talks with the Taliban.
Mullah Omar's interview also highlights another area of agreement with the United States: The Karzai government is corrupt and of questionable electoral legitimacy.
The Taliban objectives specified on their website had already shifted, Nato officials said, from the overthrow of the “puppet government” to the more moderate goal of establishing a government wanted by the Afghan people.
This objective fits rather nicely with another highlight of Obama's West Point speech:
This effort must be based on performance.  The days of providing a blank check are over.  President Karzai's inauguration speech sent the right message about moving in a new direction.  And going forward, we will be clear about what we expect from those who receive our assistance.  We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.  We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable.  And we will also focus our assistance in areas -- such as agriculture -- that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
This much, therefore, is certain: in this moment, at least, the Taliban are saying the right words to move towards a real process of negotiations and ultimate peace. It is also certain that Obama's surge is costing the United States a minimum of $30 Billion, and it is also certain that over 1,000 American servicemen have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and it is therefore certain that more American troops will perish in Afghanistan if a pathway to peace is not found.

Whether Mullah Omar's words open that pathway is the great unanswered question.  The possibility his interview is nothing more than a posture calculated to slow and stymie the troop surge within Afghanistan is real and cannot be dismissed.  Yet the question should be answered--the lives of American soldiers and the tax dollars of American citizens demand it.

Answering that question will require direct talks with the Taliban, if only because neither the United States nor the Taliban has demonstrated any great confidence in the legitimacy of the Karzai government, rendering Karzai and his administration completely compromised as a negotiations partner for either side.  Mullah Omar is suggesting the time for those direct talks is now; if he is sincere, then he is right.  For Obama, the question reduces to one of how to engage the Taliban directly without compromising troop deployments vital to the surge or otherwise ceding vital initiatives to the Taliban.

If Mullah Omar is on the level, and Obama can seize this moment of diplomatic opportunity, then his surge in Afghanistan will have succeeded beyond all expectations. Proper respect for the Americans who fell in Afghanistan-and the Americans who will yet fall in Afghanistan--demands that Obama explore every diplomatic avendue to engage the Taliban and pursue peace rather than continued war.  Mullah Omar has given Obama a chance; pray God Obama finds the courage and the vision to pursue it.