In a lengthy message on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr holiday released last week under Mullah Mohammad Omar's name, the fugitive Taliban leader used a mix of "jihad-light" bravado and toned-down political rhetoric to express his group's position on key issues, as part of a push to influence public opinion that has garnered a variety of reactions from different Western and South Asian quarters.
Yet despite the hype among AfPak watchers, the message is more a reflection of an emerging dual-track strategy that promotes Omar as a credible interlocutor while masking his flaws, and is directly tied to the NATO decision to end its military engagement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The new narrative, most certainly inspired by the various covert layers of mentoring (including non-Afghan) enjoyed by Mullah Omar's Quetta Shura, not only provides insight into Mullah Omar's public-relations strategy, but also aims to deflect attention from Taliban weaknesses, all while trying to bolster the group's possible future negotiating position. One specific objective is to force a full U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan by disrupting the establishment of a limited multi-year U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after the current 2104 drawdown date -- a subject of the "strategic partnership" talks now underway between Kabul and Washington.
By claiming that "the Afghan nation is not ready to accept establishment of American permanent bases," Mullah Omar conveyed a key demand at a crucial time when several regional countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Russia, have publicly expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the U.S.-Afghan talks (with China preferring to express its concerns through diplomatic channels).
Afghan diplomats believe that if and when the two sides reach an agreement on "strategic partnership," the deal would limit the use of Afghan bases by the United States to counter-terrorism support, and would call for international funding of Afghan security and development priorities, so avoiding the impression of American power projection in the region.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai, feeling the heat from different quarters, insists that the agreement should "serve Afghanistan's national interests," while a close advisor to President Hamid Karzai said publicly last week that most Afghans support an enduring U.S. military presence in the country, but warned that "some in the Afghan Government are trying to sabotage it."
Acknowledging, but not owning, secret talks (reportedly broken up by insider leaks by Afghan officials unhappy with being kept in the dark) held between American emissaries and the Taliban reported to have taken place earlier this year under German and Qatari auspices, Mullah Omar stressed that the meetings solely addressed the release of prisoners. He rejected the notion of "comprehensive negotiations," unless his group's agenda is taken into account. Omar also called for the immediate and full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan as a pre-condition for a settlement. The American side, unsurprisingly, promptly dismissed the pre-condition of withdrawal for peace talks.
As a sign of the shifting winds, Mullah Omar carefully avoided giving any overt sign of association with al-Qaeda and transnational jihadism in his Eid message. As a possible sign of growing rifts developing between pragmatists and dogmatists within the Taliban conglomerate, he also informed his followers that "the jihadic chiefs nominated by us in all parts of the country are your Sharia-based leaders," and gives an explicit order, "you should obey them." This is an indication that regional Taliban emissaries appointed by the Quetta Shura are facing insubordination challenges on the ground.
This may also be an attempt to give the impression that he is distancing his faction from the more lethal Haqqani network, known to have strong ties to al-Qaeda and openly operating from bases in Pakistan's tribal regions in Waziristan. Yet Omar fails to explain how he intends to rein in the various international jihadist outfits based in Pakistan and active across Afghanistan, given the outfits' 15-year links with his organization and the fragmented nature of the insurgency.
While Mullah Omar's message calls on ground forces to extend their sphere of influence to new areas (the central highlands being a new target for instability), it also provides a glimpse of the internal schisms and compliance challenges felt by the Pakistan-based leadership of the Taliban. Cracks are appearing in the façade of Taliban unity as more runaway militias, some led by foreign fighters, are resorting to assassinations, extortion and civilian abuse. Compliance with the orders and rules of conduct set by the "Leader of the Faithful" Mullah Omar appears to be weakening across the country. Local people in a village in Helmand province recently beat to death two Taliban fighters in reprisal for the killing of an innocent local elder. This type of reaction by desperate civilians is likely to increase over time.
For most Afghans though, the biggest concern remains Taliban ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), long accused of interference in Afghan affairs through different proxies.
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It is difficult to imagine a change in the widespread Afghan mistrust towards Pakistan's ruling apparatus as long as the ISI continues to provide sanctuary and logistical support to militants, and exercise command-and-control authority through rogue elements over key militant networks. It is also inconceivable that terms such as "change in the status quo" and "gunboat diplomacy" both used in Mullah Omar's Eid message, and unheard of from a former village mullah, would come from his personal lexicon (especially considering that Omar was born in a landlocked country!), pointing to his continued mentoring by non-Afghans.
Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid has called the Eid message a "forward-looking political message," while British special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Mark Sedwill tweeted that the letter marks a "a shift of tone"; but for most Afghans, angered by domestic inertia and tired of unabated violence (Taliban and affiliated networks are alleged to be responsible for approximately 80% of all civilian deaths, according to the United Nations), actions speak louder than words.
Despite attempts at selling his strategy to Afghan and Western audiences, and contrary to previous Taliban pronouncements calling for the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate, the Taliban leader admitted for the first time in his message that his group does not seek to "monopolize power." Instead, he calls for the establishment of a "real" Islamic government based on Islamic interests, going as far as accepting a role for other ethnic groups -- a novel idea shunned during the regime's power-grab in 1996.
For Mullah Omar's vision of an Islamic government to become reality, though, either the current Afghan Constitution (which guarantees basic human and democratic rights) would have to be scrapped, or the current system modified through top-down Taliban-style implementation of shariah.
However, such concepts do not seem acceptable to most poverty-stricken Afghans and a devout but forward-looking population, the majority of whom, including women, are under 30 years of age. And such radical social re-engineering could further weaken the Afghan government's hold on power, paving the way for further civil strife. Public opinion polls taken in the country since 2005 show that support for the Taliban and their style of governance garners no more than 10 percent approval at the most. This is why the Taliban and the networks that support them are opting for a more moderate tone. Some analysts view this change as progress, but it may not amount to much in the long term, as long as the use of violence against not only foreign forces but also Afghans is justified as "jihad."
Finally, in an era of mass protests against dictatorships in various parts of the Islamic world, and Twitter and Facebook generational activism, Mullah Omar seems uneasy about his group's oppressive reputation. He uses a misplaced anti-colonial narrative to target dissatisfied Afghans and skeptical Muslim masses to change existing perceptions of the Taliban, and solicits financial and moral support for his increasingly less popular fight.
Fully aware that his association with al-Qaeda is now seen as a liability, Omar blames the U.S. and NATO presence as the main cause of conflict in Afghanistan. However, he fails to appreciate the non-violent nature of most mass protests in the Muslim world and also fails to mention that prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, his forces and those of allied foreign jihadists, including al-Qaeda, were actively promoting warfare, mass murder and oppression in Afghanistan, long before Western forces appeared on the scene.
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While trying to stay a step ahead of his political adversaries, the Taliban leader and his resourceful mentors are trying to enter the world of realpolitik, by boasting about their military-political prowess on one hand, and showing a pragmatic face on the other. Perceptions of the Taliban may differ across the various time-zones of the world, but in war-torn Afghanistan, realities inked on the pages of history have a powerful voice of their own.
Given the Afghan experiences of the last three decades, it will take a lot more than just an adjustment in tone and rhetoric on the part of Mullah Omar to move the so-called reconciliation process forward, and end the current round of conflict in Afghanistan.
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Omar Samad is the former ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009) and former spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004).