- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The situation in Afghanistan could be on the verge of breaking for the better or worse, depending on the next major decisions by officials in Kabul and Washington.

The commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, said recently that intelligence showed the Taliban in turmoil over whether to accept an offer of reconciliation from President Hamid Karzai or continue fighting against U.S., coalition and Afghan forces. That intelligence makes sense historically, since the Taliban was a fractured group even when it was ruling the country.

Reconciliation is a good strategy for both the government in Kabul and former Taliban members. Mr. Karzai surely doesn’t want to have central authority rest entirely on technocrats, former exiles and tribal leaders who would have no hope of retaining power without U.S. and coalition military support. As David Isby, an expert on Afghanistan, put it, “The technocrats and former exiles with their American passports and 401ks will be the first ones out if the going gets rough.”

Also, the Taliban suffered some defeats this week after the capture of Mullah Omar’s personal security chief and another top member. Many former Taliban members could well be tired of risking capture or death and being on the outside politically. They may want to make a political comeback through parliamentary elections scheduled for April. The sensitivities of some U.S. and European officials and NGO members could be offended by Kabul’s deal-making with Taliban and other Afghan fighters (and lead violators should not benefit from any amnesty agreement), but the move could help stabilize parts of the country, and save Afghan and American lives. Interestingly, the Taliban’s spokesman, Abdul Latif Hakimi, has publicly rejected the reconciliation offer as a “ploy to divide the militia.” That sounds about right.

All the same, Kabul, with Washington’s help, should seek to neutralize the Wahabi interpretation of Islam that has prevailed within the Taliban, in favor of Afghanistan’s traditional and tolerant Sufi Islam. Achieving that could well come down to funding — which is how Wahabism made inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the first place, compliments of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Karzai and his administrators could ensure that the mullahs preaching Sufi ideals benefit, while those who extol a “foreign” inspired version of Islam that extols violence do not. The key is for Mr. Karzai to be provided with the purse strings and for his officials to disburse the inducements. Religion, after all, was the unifying force for the Taliban, and bringing Afghanistan back to its Sufi roots could rally some sense of nationhood.

In order for the Karzai government to maintain credibility and for reconciliation with the Taliban to work, parliamentary elections must be held on time. That prospect, and even the stability that has been achieved thus far, would be put into peril by an aggressive counter-drug policy that U.S. officials are planning. While the United States should support drug interdiction at major roads and at the border, it should not, given Afghanistan’s security and economic fragility, be bankrolling poppy eradication.

The statement by Lt. Gen Barno about a potential fracturing of and reconciliation with the Taliban could well be good news, but only if Kabul and Washington make the right moves in coming months.

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