Hamid Karzai’s appeal to the Taliban leader Mullah Umar that he should “return home” under guarantees of safety and “help bring peace to Afghanistan"

What should one make of Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s appeal to the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar that he should “return home” under guarantees of safety and “help bring peace to Afghanistan”? President Karzai says he has been “sending messages to the Saudi Arabian king requesting him, as a world Muslim leader, to help us bring peace in Afghanistan”. On the other hand, Mullah Umar seems least inclined to return home to Mr Karzai’s embrace. His latest statement is that he can engage in negotiations to give the NATO-ISAF forces “safe passage” out of Afghanistan.

What was the intent of the Karzai statement? On the face of it the appeal looks like a non-starter, but becomes meaningful because General David McKiernan, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supports it with the observation that “the solution in Afghanistan will ultimately be a political one”. Has he supported the Karzai initiative because he senses some tribal opposition in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the attacks mounted by the Taliban elements? He has also pointedly sent for more troops for what he said is an increasingly “tough fight” in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

Has the war against terrorism reached the “tipping point” in Afghanistan? Not at all, if you look at the casualty figures on the NATO-ISAF side. In fact the year 2008 has been declared “the bloodiest so far in Afghanistan for the NATO and US since the Taliban were removed from government in 2001”. Senior defence officials in the UK admit that “the Taliban are proving more resilient than expected”. As far as the British troops are concerned, “British forces are now being killed in Afghanistan at a faster rate than during the invasion of Iraq”. Britain has 7,800 troops, stationed mainly in Helmand Province, while the US has some 33,000 troops in Afghanistan in total, with 13,000 of those serving as part of the NATO-led coalition.

The only encouraging sign for President Karzai would be the casualty rate of the Taliban in Bajaur where the Pakistan army is executing a successful operation to win back territory lost to foreign and local terrorists. Mullah Umar seemed to be under some pressure when he appealed recently to the Taliban that they should not destroy schools and not target women and children. Is the Karzai message telling Mullah Umar: “Look, you are getting a drubbing in Pakistan, why not come home and be my partner in bringing peace to Afghanistan?”

On the other hand, there are reasons why Mullah Umar and President Karzai are an explosive mix and will not sup together on anything. In fact, there is a vendetta between the two Pashtuns which will end only after one of them is killed. Mr Karzai lived in Quetta starting 1983 and fell foul of the Taliban in 1999 when Mullah Umar had his father assassinated in Quetta. Mr Karzai thinks the ISI had a hand in it. He was in the Mujaddidi government after the Soviets left Afghanistan. He was kicked out of the Mujaddidi government by the Tajiks, but later he fell foul of Mullah Umar too by not going along with his extremist sharia. In 1999 Mr Karzai took his dead father’s body to Kandahar to reclaim headship of the Popalzai branch of the Durranis. In 2000, Al Qaeda backed the Taliban against the Northern Alliance with its Brigade 555 culled from North African Arab fighters, IMU from Uzbekistan, Filipino Moros, jihadi militias from Pakistan and groups from Chechnya and Xinjiang. Mr Karzai was on the wrong side and after a period of eclipse came centre stage in 2001 when Afghanistan was finally attacked under the UN Charter. Today, the vendetta remains unrequited and there are no holds barred between Mr Karzai and Mullah Umar.

Is the Karzai-NATO combination growing weak? Not likely on the eve of a change of government in the United States that is promising a bi-partisan consensus on an enhanced role of the NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, however, there is growing sense that Afghanistan can normalise only after the Americans leave there. Meanwhile, “official” Pakistan is worried about the Indian presence in Afghanistan and is probably piqued by the fact that it went into Afghanistan seeking “strategic depth” against India and has ended up with India breathing down its neck across the Durand Line. The region needs a three-way political arrangement which puts Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi at ease, bound as the three countries are geographically and strategically. Any new American effort must keep this in mind. The only way America can disengage from Afghanistan is by finding that delicate balance. (Daily Times)