Afghan Overture: Behind Karzai's Appeal to Mullah Omar
On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai shocked Afghan and international observers when he reached out to the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, offering him a guarantee of safety if he agrees to peace talks. Omar, who has a $10 million price on his head for his support of al-Qaeda, has not been seen since 2001, when his Taliban regime was toppled by U.S. forces. Omar is thought to be hiding in the ungoverned tribal areas along the Pakistan and Afghan border, though he still appears to be engaged in key leadership decisions regarding the growing militancy in the country. Addressing journalists at a press conference at the presidential palace, Karzai said, "If I hear from [Mullah Omar] that he is willing to come to Afghanistan or to negotiate for peace... I, as the president of Afghanistan, will go to any length to provide him [with] protection."
But how much of Karzai's bold statement can be counted as a real offer, and how much a desperate political move by a leader faced with waning support both at home and abroad? (See pictures of the frontline in the battle against the Taliban.)
As the insurgency gains a stronger foothold in Afghanistan, there has been growing debate both inside and outside the country about the possibility of reconciling with some moderate elements of the Taliban. Until now, however, Mullah Omar has always been considered one of the "irreconcilables," a key leader unacceptable because of his extremist ideology and his alliance with al-Qaeda. Omar, through Taliban spokesmen, has repeatedly asserted that he has no interest in peace talks unless all foreign forces leave the country. Karzai, for his part, asserted in the same speech that any militant seeking reconciliation must be willing to respect the Afghan constitution, the very document that Omar rejects as heresy. "It is ridiculous to think that Mullah Omar would be willing to come to the negotiating table now," scoffs a NATO commander. "This is the man who draped himself in the cloak of the Prophet and declared himself commander of the faithful. He has nothing to gain by negotiating, and we have nothing to gain by offering talks when the Taliban think they are winning."
Mullah Brother, deputy leader of the Taliban, rejected Karzai's offer, telling Reuters News via satellite telephone, "We are safe in Afghanistan and we have no need for Hamid Karzai's offer of safety." He added that foreign forces had to leave before the start of any negotiations. "As long as foreign occupiers remain in Afghanistan, we aren't ready for talks because they hold the power and talks won't bear fruit... The problems in Afghanistan are because of them," Brother said. To further underscore the Taliban rejection of Karzai's offer, a suicide bomber killed four today in the southern province of Kandahar.
Karzai, on the other hand, may see some political advantage in extending an offer that most likely will be refused. Coupled with his offer to the Taliban was an admonishment to his international backers, who have bristled at the idea of negotiating with Mullah Omar in the past. "If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, then the international community has two choices: remove me, or leave if they disagree," said Karzai. "If I am removed [by force by the western alliance] in the cause of peace for Afghanistan... then I'll be very happy. But we are not in that stage yet."
Many observers regard Karzai's announcement as a piece of crude political theater in preparation for next fall's presidential election. Xenophobia has always proved popular in Afghan politics, so by appearing defiant he can hope to gain more support, which has been steadily diminishing over frustration with his government's inability to provide security or development. In addition, Karzai can no longer be assured of unwavering U.S. support once the new administration comes in. In 2004 Karzai benefited from U.S. backing in the country's first election, but President-elect Barack Obama has been clear about his dissatisfaction with Karzai's performance so far, saying in an interview that he told Karzai in July that "you are going to have to do better by your people in order for us to gain the popular support that is necessary."
Wadir Safi, a professor of International Relations at Kabul University, says that Karzai's speech directly contradicts his platform of several months ago, when he called on lower ranking Taliban to reconcile, but ruled out negotiations with avowed enemies of Afghanistan, such as Mullah Omar. Karzai's recent trips to both the U.S. and London, where the Afghan president was criticized for his inability to stabilize his country, crack down on corruption and stop the narcotics trade, may have precipitated the about-face, says Safi. "What he said [on Sunday] was not based on analysis but political survival. He knows he is losing support from Afghans and the international community, so instead he announced this in order to get support from Pashtuns in the south — those who want peace, but support the Taliban."
But political analyst Dad Noorani believes that Karzai may have unwittingly undermined his already weak standing with his defiant stance. "When he said the international community has two choices, he clearly discredited himself. All along he has been saying that he was elected by the Afghan people, and now he says if the international community does not accept his offer to Mullah Omar then they can remove him or leave. How can the international community remove him if he is elected?" Professor Safi agrees. "This just proves that the whole election was a farce, and that Karzai is president not by the will of the people, but of the West." But if Karzai keeps up this kind of talk, they say, he won't even have that any more. With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul