Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The expression “moderate Taliban” is a comical oxymoron, but Saudi-sponsored negotiations are currently underway with these mythical beasts to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire.

Qayum Karzai, brother of the Afghan president, is representing Kabul, and former bin Laden associate Abdullah Anas reputedly is acting as Taliban intermediary. Anas’ role is unclear; he initially gave enthusiastic statements about the talks to the British press, then recanted them, insisting on Afghan TV that he “did not make the remarks. I do not know from where they took the remarks or quotes. I do not know at all whether Mullah Omar would like to start talks. I did not make the remark.” For someone representing “moderates,” Anas sounds terribly frightened.

Taliban chieftains will not admit publicly that they are negotiating, calling the news reports “baseless lies.” A Taliban spokesman said, “Our position remains unchanged. We will conduct jihad and continue resistance as long as foreign forces are present in Afghanistan. If you wait for 3,000 years, our position is that the Taliban will not enter into any kind of talks.” Of course that is their going-in position; we may be able to bargain them down to 1,000 years.

The Afghan government believes the talks are going well, and that supportive statements from President Obama have “created enormous optimism.” The negotiations fit neatly into Mr. Obama’s “let’s talk it out” global strategy. The reported U.S. position is that if the Taliban cease fighting, evict al Qaeda, and promise not to support terrorism in the future, the U.S. and NATO will leave Afghanistan. Call it Anbar Awakening: The Sequel.

The United States assumes only about 5 percent of the Taliban are incorrigibles, and the remaining “reconcilables” can be “peeled off.” Hamid Karzai, himself a former Taliban supporter, defines the moderates as “those who are not affiliated with al Qaeda” and “who accept the constitution of Afghanistan.” But most of the people who fit that description either joined the political process years ago or were killed by their immoderate brethren.

Former Taliban foreign minister and oft-noted moderate Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil says that, if you want a centrist, look no farther than Mullah Omar. “Esteemed Mullah Omar always used moderation and balance,” he said. “We believe that he was a good leader for implementing moderate policies. I do not see him as an extremist individual.” In fact, according to Muttawakil, all the Taliban are moderates. “There may be no Taliban who will agree he is an extremist. They all believe they are moderate on the basis of Islam, simply because this religion is based on moderation.”

Let’s not fool ourselves with terms like “moderates,” “hard-liners,” “reconcilables” and whatnot. The lesson of Iraq is that durable agreements are founded on tangible interests. Hamid Karzai’s primary interest is his reelection, and many Afghan observers see this outreach to the Taliban as a means of securing votes in the areas under their control. Presumably the insurgents will be less motivated to behead voters if there are ongoing negotiations. The primary Saudi interest is to separate the Taliban from al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is a mortal foe of the Saudi regime, and al Qaeda cannot survive without Taliban support. If al Qaeda loses local tribal protection there will be nowhere left to run, though perhaps Iran will take some on the sly like it did in 2001.

As for the Taliban, a former member of the Afghan National Security Council tells The Washington Times that “they know they can’t defeat U.S. and NATO” and might be satisfied with “some positions in local governments, which is not much to give them.” But they will never disarm, our source says; “disarmament is nothing they will agree with and [is] not practical.” Moreover, even if the Taliban agree to local ceasefires, their strategic objectives are clear and unwavering. They want foreign troops to leave and to re-establish their suffocating autocratic rule in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama agrees with at least half the Taliban agenda, the eventual departure of Coalition troops. The critical question is whether the U.S. would accept renewed Taliban rule, with all that implies: radical shariah law, oppression of women, destruction of the Afghan culture, and ruthless suppression of political opponents.

The alignment of interests seems to be pointing in that direction, and once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan a resurgent Taliban may be unavoidable. Furthermore, the U.S. cannot trust Taliban promises not to support terrorism in the future - it never admitted al Qaeda was a terrorist group to begin with. So in a few years we may be left with Mullah Omar back in Kabul, oppressing the Afghan people and granting safe haven for a new generation of Islamist terrorists. It seems like our country has gone to a lot of time and trouble just to return to the 1990s.

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