‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ of Afghanistan by S Iftkhar murshid

As the curtain rises for the second Obama presidential term, the immediate foreign policy priority will be the smooth withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and ensuring that the insurgency-scarred country does not descend into complete chaos. There is no gainsaying the importance and centrality of Pakistan in this enterprise.
It is undoubtedly in Islamabad’s own interest to skilfully employ whatever leverage it still has with the Afghan groups to persuade them to sort out their differences at the negotiating table, as only that will stave off the hideous possibility of civil war.
Last month, on Eid-ul-Azha, Mullah Omar issued a statement which commentators here believe indicated “important policy shifts.” None of them bothered to scratch the surface which would have demonstrated that, like all weak-minded men, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban lays an exaggerated emphasis on not changing his mind. He is convinced that, as the amir-ul-momineen (commander of the faithful), he is the undisputed ruler of Afghanistan for the rest of his life and any settlement of the conflict must be on his terms. This was the impression I gathered after several meetings with him from 1996 to 2000.

Those were fretful years in which I was involved in a shuttle mission aimed at persuading the Afghan groups to terminate their hostilities and agree on a mechanism for establishing a broad-based government reflecting the ethnic mosaic of the country. Some of these travels were life-threatening, and, on one occasion we survived narrowly as our aircraft was about to be shot down by the Northern Alliance over the skies of Mazar-e-Sharif. The incident was later recounted by Saleh Zafir of the Jang Group and Z A Qureshi of Pakistan Television who accompanied me on that eventful flight. Afghanistan has changed little since then, and the country continues to be ravaged by internal conflict.

In his Eid-ul-Azha message Mullah Omar has again affirmed: “We do not intend to grab power and nor, after the exit of foreign forces, [want to ignite] a civil war. Our efforts are centred on a political system that is in the hands of Afghans” free from external interference. This was more or less a rehash of his Eid-ul-Fitr message in August last year which was the most exhaustive statement he has ever made. In that message, which reads more like a papal encyclical, he announced: “The policy of the Islamic Emirate is not aimed at monopolising power since Afghanistan is the joint homeland of all Afghans,” and all citizens have the right to play a role in the “running of the country.”

Less than a month later, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and the chief of the High Peace Council, was killed in Kabul by suicide bombers from one of the Taliban groups. His grief-stricken daughter, Fatima, reminisced how tragically ironical it was that only a week earlier, her father, a mild-mannered professor of theology, had attended a conference in Tehran on “Islamic Awakening” where “he had appealed to the ulema (religious scholars) to issue a fatwa (decree) against suicide bombings.”

The assassination, despite Mullah Omar’s assurances that he had no intention of “monopolising power,” is just one of many instances that shows how fractured the Taliban movement has become. Commanders act independently and ignore the orders of their supreme leader with ill-disguised disdain. This was glaringly apparent in the manner that Taliban fighters have violated the solemn pledges enshrined in the constitution promulgated by Mullah Omar. The main features of the document were published in the August 3, 2010, issue of Azadi, a Quetta-based newspaper.

The 35-page constitution, which contains 14 chapters and 85 clauses, stresses that jihad must be strictly in accordance with Islamic principles and “every mujahid” (holy warrior) is obliged to go the extra mile to “win a place in the hearts of the people...so that they have the prayers of the people with them.” Three days later the bodies of 10 men and women, all medical aid workers, were discovered by Afghan police in the northern province of Badakshan.

Another clause ordains that captured foreign troops must never be treated as hostages and, therefore, their release “in exchange for money is strictly forbidden.” The same paragraph enjoins the provision of “good facilities to the prisoners” and prohibits any form of torture, particularly the “cutting off of ears, noses and lips.” Five days later, the mutilated remains of two US Marines who had been captured by the Taliban the previous month in Logar province were recovered by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (Isaf).

The document emphatically asserts that informers and spies must not even be arrested, or harmed, without their being made aware of Islamic teachings and given an opportunity to repent. This did not stop the public hanging of a seven-year-old boy on preposterous charges of espionage. Around this time international media outlets carried unconfirmed reports that the Taliban leadership had instructed their fighters to kill or capture Afghan nationals, even women, if they cooperated with Isaf.

These ghastly incidents, despite the assurances in the constitution promulgated by the self-styled amir-ul-momineen, show that his authority is gradually being eroded. This was also conceded in March last year by his close confidante, Mullah Zabiullah, who said that the Taliban movement was in the throes of an unprecedented leadership crisis.

But despite this, Mullah Omar is by far the most powerful leader of Pakhtun-dominated southern and eastern Afghanistan, and all efforts to promote a settlement will have to be negotiated through his designated representatives. In his Eid-ul-Azha message he stated: “...we have established a specific office and a separate political panel...I wish to make it clear that besides that specific office, we have no other outlet for any reconciliation or political dialogue.” This is the same “committee” for the purpose of “making external and internal policies” that was envisaged in the constitution two years earlier.

Against this backdrop, Washington believes that Pakistan can play a pivotal role for the orderly withdrawal of US troops and the eventual stabilisation of Afghanistan. It is therefore probably not coincidental that in the last few days the US Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Marc Grossman, the State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland and Deputy Chief of the American embassy in Islamabad Richard Hoagland, have publicly affirmed that the Durand Line is the recognised international boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

These pronouncements at this point in time are intriguing. In 2007, when Pakistan toyed with the idea of fencing its border with Afghanistan, former president Pervez Musharraf was discreetly but firmly advised by the Bush administration to abandon the project, as it would undermine the Karzai regime. The change in Washington’s declaratory policy on the Durand Line is therefore significant. Whatever the reason for this, it is vitally important for Pakistan to craft well-thought-through initiatives aimed at facilitating an intra-Afghan dialogue. The alternative is the intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan, which will have horrendous implications for the security situation in the adjacent tribal regions of Pakistan.

But persuading the Afghan groups to talk to each other has never been easy. A top-ranking foreign ministry official recently said that Mullah Omar was as “damned and elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel” of Baroness Orczy’s literary masterpiece and there had been absolutely no contact with him for several months. One can only hope that he was lying through his teeth. The supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban has always prided himself on being a man of his word. His ideas for a settlement are spelt out in the constitution he promulgated in 2010, his Eid-ul-Fitr message of August 2011 and his recent statement on Eid-ul-Azha. These documents warrant serious study as they constitute a framework for negotiations among the Afghan factions.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com


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