Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Afghanistan: Karzai wants to make nice with Mullah Omar?

Say it isn't so.

Afghans use Saudis to broker peace with Taliban. The Brits are in on it, too. For crying out loud, even the Italians are waving the white flag around.

Mr Karzai said he had asked King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, to help broker a settlement with the extremist religious movement, which was ousted from power by a US-led coalition in the wake of al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks on America in 2001.

Speaking during a ceremony to mark the religious festival of Eid, Mr Karzai said he had made a direct plea to Mullah Omar, the cleric who has overseen the Taliban's revival across Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland. "A few days ago I called upon their leader, Mullah Omar, and said 'My brother, my dear, come back to your homeland, come and work for the peace and good of your people and stop killing your brothers'."

Mr Karzai said he had offered the Taliban leadership a guarantee of protection from international forces in Afghanistan, if they returned for peace talks: "They should come back and not be afraid of the foreigners. I will stand in front of the foreigners."

The spread of fierce fighting in Afghanistan has revived interest in negotiating with "reconcilable" members of the Taliban - those willing to renounce ties to al-Qaeda in return for a role in government. A senior US official said this week that military force could not be regarded as a "comprehensive" solution to the challenges in Afghanistan. "In some cases you have to be willing to reach across the table and shake the hand of the guy who is trying to kill you," the official said.

Up to 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed in fighting this year, including more than 200 coalition soldiers, making it the most deadly year since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.

The Saudi mediation, which has relied on significant assistance from British intelligence, has involved forging regular contacts between Taliban defectors and their former contacts in the movement. Mr Karzai said the Saudi monarch's role as custodian of Islam's holiest shrines granted King Abdullah a unique authority to seek peace.

He said: "For the last two years, I've sent letters to the king of Saudi Arabia, and I've sent messages, and I requested from him as the leader of the Islamic world, for the security and prosperity of Afghanistan and for reconciliation in Afghanistan."

A message meanwhile issued by Mullah Omar called on the 70,000 foreign troops operating in Afghanistan to pull out. Mullah Omar has evaded capture since his regime collapsed despite a $25 million bounty on his head. He also offered a peace deal but only on the most extreme terms.

"I say to the invaders: if you leave our country, we will provide you the safe context to do so," he said. "If you insist on your invasion, you will be defeated like the Russians before you."

Core Taliban demands are unacceptable to Mr Karzai's Western backers and the Taliban has cast doubt on the Afghan leader's credibility as a negotiating partner. But even the most bitterly anti-Taliban elements of Afghanistan's ruling factions have supported talks with the Taliban. The former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said a broad spectrum of Afghan political leaders have held meetings with the group.

They just never learn, do they?