Obama and The Middle East - Should Obama talk to the Taliban?


Should Obama talk to the Taliban?

by 'Star Buks'

La Bouche reminds readers that the opinions expressed in this article are the writers, not necessarily the magazines'

President Barack Obama has rightly decided to focus his foreign policy on the Middle East. Elsewhere in this issue of La Bouche you will find a whole article devoted to Iran - Obama recently announced that he would like to talk to the Iranians, rather than bomb the living hell out of them - a more civilized approach, surely, than that adopted by his red-neck predecessor.

Obama has identified al-Qa'ida as his main enemy in the region - again, rightly - and his second major policy decision has been to send a further 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to emulate the  'Surge' and 'Awakening' campaigns that had some success against al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Unfortunately most commentators say that this tactic is doomed.

In Iraq, American agents were able to identify Sunni tribes whose members would be prepared, for a fee, to turn against the al-Qa'ida-led insurgency. This was called the 'Awakening' by General David Patraeus whose brainchild it was.rn'Awakening Councils' fomented distrust of the 'foreign' jihadis (fighters engaged in what they believe is a 'holy war' against 'infidel' invaders) and now there are 100,000 salaried tribesmen under arms in support of the US invasion. They are called the 'Sons of Iraq' but may, in the future, present the Iraqi government with a huge problem since they are a fully armed and trained militia with doubtful allegiances.

Then Patraeus launched the 'Surge' - a concentrated and relentless barrage of attacks on the insurgency's strongholds which succeeded in putting al-Qa'ida on the run from Iraq - and into Afghanistan. (Actually, recent suicide bombings suggest that al-Qa'ida still has a significant presence in Iraq but let's not go there now.)

Al-Qa'ida is now ensconsed in the mountainous border area (generally identified as the Tribal Regions) between Pakistan and Afghanistan where its close ally, the Taliban, control two-thirds of the country. Osama bin Laden (and more recently his son and heir apparent, Saad) and his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as several thousand al-Qa'ida fighters are believed to be in hiding there. The Taliban movement has spread like wildfire into Pakistan where there are probably 4 million loyalists there with 80,000 under arms.

With a weak government in Afghanistan, headed by US puppet Karzai, and an equally weak one in Pakistan headed by Benezir Bhutto's corrupt (he was formerly known as Mr 10% and served 3 years in jail for corruption) widower, Asif Ali Zardari, al-Qa'ida and the Taliban have been able to establish and run training camps and operate virtually unhindered in the Hindu Kush for several years now.

Even before Obama came to power, George W. had started bombing jihadi strongholds in Pakistani territory without the consent of the Pakistani government which raised a few heckles. Pakistan has a big problem with loyalty in the intelligence service (the ISI), the Army and Police force - where many officers are said to support al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. No Pakistani president wants to alienate those guys because that's how coups happen.

Obama wants to extend this operation into a fully blown 'Surge' - General Patraeus has been wheeled in to perform the same old magic - placing Zardari in a nightmare situation because he's unwilling to face-off the US but he's scared of his own people. The US are hoping to bring about an 'Awakening' among the Pashtun people who inhabit the Tribal Regions too.

The problem for Obama and General Patraeus is that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not Iraq. Iraq was a secular state for a start whereas most Afghans and Pakistanis are either from a similar branch of Sunni Islam as the Taliban and al-Qa'ida or are sympathetic to its fundamentalist message.

There is also the matter of 'Pashtunwali'. This is a strict code of honour which governs the lives of the Pashtun tribes throughout the region and it explicitly forbids the betrayal of a guest. The foreign jihadis are considered guests.

Then the US hope to foment a split between the moderate Taliban and their more radical brethren but the majority of Taliban are loyal to their leader Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden and Dr Ayman al Zawahiri have both given their 'bayat' (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar too, formalizing the alliance between the two powerful groups.

Another major problem for Obama's ambitions in the region is the geography. The Russians waged a ten year war in Afghanistan but were forced to retreat, licking their wounds, as were the British in the earlier part of the century and as were every other would-be invader of this fierce country throughout history. The high mountains (they are the foothills of the Himalayas) are impenetrable to outsiders, there are few roads and snow makes them impassable for months at a time. This kind of terrain is ideal for indigenous rebel forces as the French found to their cost in Algeria.

It would be better all round if Obama could accept that our best chance of reform in the Middle East and real change is through example. Look at our great democracy guys!?

There's a strong chance the Taliban will regain power in Afghanistan and your humble commentator, Starbuks, admits to being confused here. Why doesn't Obama simply talk to the Taliban when he's willing to negotiate with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Because they are too fanatical? So why does he happily talk to the Saudi Royal rulers then?

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