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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009

Barack Obama's Taliban itch


How gun-toting Islamists are expanding their hold on western Pakistan has been laid bare by Islamabad's U.S.-condoned peace agreement effectively ceding the once-pristine Swat Valley to the Taliban to set up a mini-state barely 160 km from the Pakistani capital. The deal came even as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari warned that the Taliban wants to take over his country. The Taliban's sway on territory on both sides of the British- drawn Durand Line shows that the Afghanistan-Pakistan ("Afpak") border no longer exists in practice.

Less obvious is the Obama administration's interest to seek a political deal with the Taliban behind the cover of a U.S. troop "surge" in Afghanistan. Having failed to rout that Islamist militia, Washington is now preparing the ground to strike a deal with the Taliban leadership, but from a position of strength. That is why the surge has been initiated.

The very day Obama announced the surge, he acknowledged in an interview that "you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means." In that light, U.S. officials are expanding contacts with the Taliban.

The Taliban leadership — with an elaborate command-and-control structure oiled by Wahhabi petrodollars and proceeds from the $720-million opium trade — has been ensconced for long in the Quetta area of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, which abuts the insurgency-wracked provinces of southern Afghanistan.

Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command chief, is openly looking for ways to win over local Taliban commanders. Petraeus sees higher troop levels as increasing U.S. leverage for political deals with the Taliban just as his use of the Iraq surge co-opted Sunni tribal chieftains.

His boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has gone one step further to say Washington could accept a Swat Valley-style agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Speaking at the close of a NATO meeting in Krakow, Poland, Gates recently said: "If there is reconciliation, if insurgents are willing to put down their arms, if the reconciliation is essentially on the terms being offered by the government then I think we would be very open to that."

The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if attempts are made to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists, and between those who threaten their security and those who threaten ours. But, unfortunately, that is what the Obama administration is itching to do, first by drawing a specious distinction between al-Qaida and the Taliban, and then seeking to illusorily differentiate between "moderate" Taliban (the good terrorists) and those that rebuff deal-making (the bad terrorists).

Worse yet, Obama is following in his predecessor's footsteps by taking friends and allies for granted. Several decisions — to induct 17,000 more troops, set up local Afghan militias in a country already bristling with armed militiamen, and open lines of communication with the Taliban — have been taken without prior consultations with partners, including NATO allies, Japan and India.

The decision to train and arm local militias in every Afghan province flies in the face of the commonly agreed objective that the international community must focus on institution-building to create a stable, moderate Afghanistan — a goal that has prompted India to pour massive $1.2 billion development aid into that country. When the United Nations-sponsored program to disarm and demobilize existing militias is in limbo, the U.S. move to create new militia units risks seriously undermining the secular Afghan Army and triggering more bloodletting.

Indeed, to arrest further deterioration in the Afghan war, the U.S. military needs to focus less on al-Qaida — a badly splintered and weakened organization whose leadership operates out of mountain caves — and more on a resurgent Taliban that openly challenges NATO forces and terrorizes local populations. As CIA chief Leon Panetta acknowledged in his Senate confirmation hearing, "al-Qaida today is less capable and effective than it was a year ago." Yet advocates of a Taliban deal exaggerate the threat from al-Qaida while underplaying the Taliban's evil role.

Tellingly, unmanned U.S. drones have targeted senior figures from al-Qaida and other insurgent groups holed up in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but not the Taliban leadership operating with impunity from Pakistan's Baluchistan, even though most drone aircraft reportedly fly out of Baluchistan's CIA-run Shamsi airfield.

U.S. ground commando raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan also have spared the Taliban's command- and-control in Baluchistan. Even as the CIA's covert war expanded this month to take on Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud — a major thorn in the side of the Pakistani military establishment — the Afghan Taliban's Baluchistan-based core leadership has been left unscathed so that the U.S. can potentially pursue a deal with it.

The CIA still maintains cozy ties with the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has sheltered the Taliban's top Afghan leadership. Created by the ISI and midwifed by the CIA in 1994, the Taliban rapidly emerged as a Frankenstein's monster. Yet the Clinton administration acquiesced in the Taliban's ascension to power in Kabul in 1996 and turned a blind eye as that thuggish militia, in league with the ISI, fostered narco-terrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism.

With 9/11, however, the chickens came home to roost. The U.S. came full circle in October 2001 when it declared war on the Taliban, which had given sanctuary to al-Qaida. Now, desperate to save a faltering military campaign, U.S. policy is edging to come another full circle, as Gates and Petraeus seek to employ the surge to strike deals with "moderate" Taliban (as if there can be moderates in an Islamist militia that enforces medieval practices).

If the U.S. were to conclude a political deal that rehabilitates the Taliban chief, the one-eyed Mullah Muhammad Omar, and his top associates, it would be a powerful vindication of the Pakistani military's role in rearing the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba as force multipliers vis-a-vis Afghanistan and India respectively. Indeed, it would buoy up its long-running asymmetrical war against India, waged through militants like those who carried out the unparalleled Mumbai terrorist attacks recently.

The tactical gains Obama is seeking in the Afpak belt will come at strategic costs. The notion that attacks against America can be prevented not by defeating terrorism but by regionally confining it is preposterous. Terrorism cannot be boxed in hermetically in a region that already is the wellspring of global terror.

A U.S. deal with the Taliban will be a bad bet. It won't yield a ticket out of Afghanistan for the U.S. military; rather it will reinforce Afpak's position as the narco-terrorist beachhead.

Obama must rethink his Afpak strategy and resist the temptation to pursue narrow, short-term objectives.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.


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