For those wondering where United States Vice President Joe Biden bides his – vast – spare time, he has just spent quite an eventful Tuesday both at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) headquarters in Brussels.
Biden’s message to Europeans in panic with the financial crisis (but reluctant to bail out Eastern Europe) was, well, comforting: “It is worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state.”
This was designed to stress the prime (revolutionary?) US counter-insurgency tactic in the increasingly tumultuous Afghanistan-Pakistan theater: the urgency in launching a “good” Taliban talk show.
As if NATO’s top brass hadn’t noticed – and maybe they didn’t – following the example of their troops who’d rather buy carpets in Chicken Street in Kabul than face a mujahid – Biden stressed the situation in the South Asian theater was getting worse.
The Europeans were not impressed – ie, no more forking out troops. Biden said the current mess “poses a security threat … not just to the United States, but to every single nation around this table.” There’s still no credible evidence the Taliban want to cruise the Brandenburg Gate in their Toyota Land Cruisers – or set the new, post-modern, Sir Norman Foster-redesigned Reichstag alight (again).
The hunt for the ‘good’ Taliban
A French/EU strategist confirmed to Asia Times Online that Biden and his eminent NATO round table simply couldn’t agree on which “good” Taliban to talk to. A Skype conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai would not enlighten matters. A phone call to the puppet across the border, Benazir Bhutto’s widower President Asif Ali Zardari, might.
Contrary to a female member of the Afghan parliament in Kabul who summed it all up so nicely last week (“Send us 30,000 scholars instead. Or 30,000 engineers. But don’t send more troops – it will just bring more violence”), Afghan president – they call him the mayor of Kabul – Karzai remains isolated, thus he has chosen to stick to his guns trying to anticipate the outcome of elections set for August.
Afghans didn’t fall for it. The gang of neo-liberal realists of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team also didn’t fall for it. True, they’d rather have another Afghan puppet as soon as possible, but for the moment, everyone waits for the August elections.
As for Zardari, he is after all the go-to guy in the theater as far as hugging a Taliban is concerned. He made a deal with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. He made a deal with the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) which led to the release of its leader, the intractable Sufi Mohammad. On February 16, the government of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) signed the Swat peace deal; this means that TNSM will enforce sharia law in the valley and will not attack Zardari’s troops.
This is the model for other tribal areas as well. Two weeks ago the Taliban and the Pakistani government in Bajaur declared a truce – and that will certainly lead to yet another peace deal. Immediately afterwards three key Taliban factions – the Mehsud group, the Gul Bahadur group and the Mullah Nazir group – declared they were forming a tight alliance in Waziristan to fight not Zardari and the Pakistani feudalistic power elite, but NATO, the Americans, their “war on terror” and foreign occupation in general.
United States Central Command chief General David “I’m positioning myself for 2012” Petraeus, Pentagon supremo Robert Gates, Obama, Biden, the NATO round table, everybody now is on message. The problem is how to locate these oh-so-elusive “good” Taliban.
Biden certainly knows that late last year a select group of Afghan diplomats plus Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali, finally talked to some Taliban, good or bad, with mediation by notorious Taliban-enabler Saudi Arabia. That means, with US approval.
What Biden doesn’t admit in public is that the Petraeus-Gates-Obama-Biden strategy amounts to showering US dollar bills on any Taliban commander that wants to make any kind of deal with NATO. Zardari for his part is doing the same thing – but much, much faster.
“Taliban” of course is a supremely elastic denomination. The motley crew on the prowl for “good” Taliban should at least know who they are looking for.
Number one is the historic Taliban led by Mullah Omar, last seen escaping from American bombs and into legend in Kandahar province in the autumn of 2001 on the back of a 50cc Honda. US counter-intelligence aces know he is now based in Quetta, in Balochistan – Pakistan territory, with access to e-mail. But they haven’t even been able to send him an SMS.
Number two is the Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) of former Afghan prime minister and uber-warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; strictly speaking they are not Taliban.
Number three is the group of famous jihad commander Jalaluddin Haqqani – based in the Waziristan tribal areas of Pakistan.
Then there are at least three Pakistani Taliban groups – Mehsud, Gul Bahadur and the TNSM.
And finally any group of Pashtun peasants who hate foreign occupation (that’s about everybody); had family killed by the Americans, NATO or the Pakistani army (a lot of people); or lost their opium poppy crops, which means their livelihood (many more are candidates for this as soon as Obama’s surge troops hit Helmand province).
All these, on the Afghan side, account for no more than 15,000 people, according to the Afghan Ministry of Interior; but they happen to be very active, and reachable, in no less than 17 Afghan provinces. Certainly the more than 60,000 US and NATO troops, not to mention the 17,000 in Obama’s surge, could engage them in a little more conversation.
The mullah is not in the coola
A case of Chateau Margaux 1982 can be bet on the fact that no one at NATO’s round table knows how to deal with Hekmatyar – the man who chose to destroy Kabul in the civil war in the mid 1990s before the Taliban took power in 1996 (in fact he managed to kill more Afghans than Soviets).
Hekmatyar is the Michael Corleone of jihad. Recently in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the Karzai people thought they had handed Hekmatyar the famous “offer he can’t refuse”: asylum in Saudi Arabia first, then return to Afghanistan with full immunity. They forgot that a proud Hekmatyar does not want asylum. He wants a piece of the action in Kabul – preferably the meatiest part.
Former Taliban foreign minister Mullah Muttawakil – whom this correspondent had the pleasure to meet in those golden Taliban power days – knows from experience this won’t work. He told al-Jazeera, “It will not benefit anyone … it will not finish the war.”
This means that the hunt for the good Taliban will have to be focused on first finding out, and then talking to, the Shadow himself – Mullah Omar.
And what would Mullah Omar tell all these suddenly talkative Westerners? He would tell exactly what Mullah Omar’s close friend Mullah Mutassim, a former Taliban finance minister, told al-Samoud magazine two weeks ago: we want the US and NATO out of Afghanistan now, we want sharia law and we want absolutely no Western interference in our country.
Now what does Michael Corleone – oops, Hekmatyar want?
He’s not Taliban. He’s not al-Qaeda. He was a darling of the US, Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) during the jihad in the 1980s. He’s not a fundamentalist – more like Muslim Brotherhood. The US Central Intelligence Agency tried to kill him with – what else – a Hellfire missile. He escaped.
This correspondent almost bumped into him in Kunar province in 2002 – to the astonishment of US troops on the prowl. Then the – who else – ISI helped him to regroup. Karzai offered him a not meaty enough piece of the action in Kabul. Pakistan released his brother from custody. China invited some of his associates to Beijing.
So everybody loves him – Karzai, Zardari, the ISI, the House of Saud, China and, sooner or later, the Obama administration. He may even get an offer he can’t refuse. But there’s a problem: he also wants the US and NATO out. And he’s clever enough to try to fight a united Taliban flush with opium money and ultra- energized against the Petraeus/Gates counter-insurgency tactics. By the way, Hekmatyar was the pioneer of refining heroin inside Afghanistan, instead of just taxing opium.
So what happens next? Well, the usual. The united Pakistani Taliban is helping to prepare the massive spring offensive directed by … Mullah Omar against the surging US plus NATO in Afghanistan. Cynics in Brussels bet that those at the NATO round table know deep inside that this weaponized arm of Western arrogance doesn’t stand a chance in the long run against built-for-war mujahideen who defeated everyone from Alexander The Great onwards.
For public consumption Obama insists “we have no interest or aspiration” to be in Afghanistan “over the long term.” He obviously forgot to ask the Pentagon. Their acronym-infested bible – the famous FM 3-05.202 (Special Forces Foreign Internal Defense Operations) spells counter-insurgency lasting forever. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, the former top military man in Afghanistan, even said the US will stay until 2025.
Plenty of time to either find any “good” Taliban to talk to or, Allah forbid, helplessly watch them conquer Berlin singing The Ride of the Pashtun with the Berlin Philharmonic.