Enter the year of the Taliban


No matter what the Chinese may say about 2012 being the year of the dragon, this is going to be the year of the Taliban so far as the United States is concerned.

The New Year began with an exciting media “leak” by senior United States officials in Washington that the Barack Obama administration was considering the transfer to Afghan custody of a senior Taliban official, Mullah Mohammed Fazl, who has been detained at the US facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for the past nine years.

The officials claimed Fazl might be released (or transferred to Qatar) in response to a longstanding request by Kabul as a “confidence-building measure” intended to underscore to the Taliban the US’s seriousness in engaging them.

To be sure, the Obama administration is raring to go. Just about four months are left for the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Chicago, an event showcasing Obama’s leadership of the Western alliance – and that he can lead from the front – embedded within his unpredictable re-election bid. The summit is expected to focus world attention on the Afghan situation.

With the Europeans caught in existential angst due to their grave economic crisis, Obama needs to use all his charm on his NATO colleagues not to ditch him in Afghanistan. For that, he needs to convince them that he is leading them to the end of the dark tunnel. The Chicago summit cannot afford to fail, as happened with the two events leading to it – the Istanbul meet on November 2 and the Bonn Conference II on December 2.

But the mood in the region surrounding Afghanistan is turning ugly. Moscow has dealt a devastating blow to the game plan drawn up by the US and NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen eyeing Central Asia tactically as the backyard for Afghan operations if push comes to shove in the US’s relations with Pakistan – and strategically as a platform for the great game toward Russia, China and Iran.

In a geopolitical coup, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Moscow on December 20 took a momentous decision that for the setting up of foreign military bases on CSTO territory, there had to be approval by all member states of the Moscow-led alliance that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan President Nurusultan Nazarbayev announced with a straight face:

The most important outcome of our meeting was an agreement on the coordination of military infrastructure deployment by non-members of CSTO on the territory of CSTO member states. Now, in order to deploy a military base of a third country on the territory of a CSTO member state, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all CSTO member states. I think this is a clear sign of the organization’s unity and its members’ utmost loyalty to allied relations.

The last sentence was dripping with irony since the Obama administration had just recently taken a decision to provide military assistance to Uzbekistan in a policy turnaround with the intent to hijack the key Central Asian country to undermine the CSTO. To Washington’s dismay, Uzbek President Islam Karimov not only attended the CSTO summit in Moscow, but went on to voice his support of the alliance’s decision.

With this, Moscow signaled to Washington that its monopoly of conflict-resolution in Afghanistan has to end. The US has a choice to crawl back into Pakistan’s favor and persuade Islamabad to reopen the transit routes that have been shut down for a month already or, alternatively, fall back on the Northern Distribution Network for supplying NATO troops and for taking the men and materials out as the troop drawdown picks momentum through 2011.

The CSTO decision hangs like a sword of Damocles on the US base in Manas near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which is a strategic hub for air transportation.

There is no evidence so far that Russia and Pakistan have begun acting in tandem – although, in his statement anticipating Russia’s foreign policy priorities for 2012, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did single out Pakistan.

As the crow flies …
Amid all this, Fazl’s possible release from Guantanamo comes as a masterstroke by Washington aimed at scattering the growing regional bonhomie over the Afghan situation. The Obama administration hopes to release a fox into the chicken pen. Fazl is one of the most experienced Taliban commanders who has been with Taliban leader Mullah Omar almost from day one and he held key positions commanding the Taliban army.

He would have been a favorite of both Mullah Omar and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and his “homecoming” ought to bring joy to both. On the other hand, he was also culpable for the massacre of thousands of Hazara Shi’ites during 1998-2001 and was possibly accountable for the execution of eight Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Fazl inspires visceral hatred in the Iranian mind and could create misunderstandings in Pakistan-Iran relations (which have been on an upswing in recent years) and put Islamabad on the horns of a dilemma vis-a-vis Mullah Omar.

Fazl is also a notorious personality from the Central Asian and Russian viewpoint insofar as he used to be the Taliban’s point person for al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Chechen rebels. He was also in charge of the strategic Kunduz region bordering the “soft underbelly” of Central Asia where he was based with IMU chief Juma Namangani at the time of the US intervention in October 2011.

Fazl belongs to the “pre-Haqqani clan” era. Will the Haqqani network – a key component of the Taliban-led insurgency from its base in Pakistan’s tribal areas – accept Fazl’s “seniority” and give way to him? Pakistan may have to prioritize its “strategic assets”; it is a veritable minefield.

Enter Qatar, which is increasingly emerging as the US’s closest ally in the Middle East next only to Israel. The Obama administration feels impressed by the skill Qatar displayed in theaters as diverse as Libya, Egypt and Syria in finessing the Muslim Brotherhood and other seemingly intractable Islamist groups and helping the US to catapult itself to the “right side of history” in the Middle East.

The Obama administration is optimistic that if Fazl could be left to able Qatari hands, he could be recycled as an Islamist politician for a democratic era.

Fazl does have the credentials to bring Mullah Omar on board for launching formal peace talks. Fazl enjoys credibility among the Taliban militia and they would be inclined to emulate his reincarnation. His bonding with Islamist forces in Pakistan and the ISI could be useful channels of communication with Islamabad, which will come under pressure to cooperate with the US-led peace talks, or at the very least refrain from undercutting them.

Indeed, he is the perfect antidote to Iran’s influence in Afghanistan. Once Qatar is through with him, Fazl becomes just the right partner for Washington in the great game if the Arab Spring were to appear in Central Asia, holding prospects of regime change and the rise of “Islamic democracies” in the steppes. Fazl can be trusted to persuade Taliban not to make such a terrible issue out of the US plans to establish military bases in Afghanistan.

However, will the plan work? Pakistan may have fired the first salvo of the New Year to demolish the US plan when Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said in Islamabad on Monday:

Establishing sustainable security and stability in Afghanistan is impossible without Iran’s role. To establish security and reinvigorate Afghanistan, Iran must be given due attention and must be trusted, because pushing the trend of peace and establishing durable security and stability without Iran’s partnership is impossible.

Basit was speaking within earshot of the whirring sound of the Iranian cruise missile with the ferocious name Qader (Mighty) fired from an undisclosed location unambiguously demonstrating Tehran’s capability to enforce a blockade of the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

An accomplished diplomat, he certainly knows Doha lies just 547 kilometers away as the crow flies from the Strait of Hormuz. Fazl won’t be safe in Doha.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

The story is available at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/NA04Df01.html