A Retirement Plan for Mullah Omar?

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Defecting Taliban fighters drive through the front line in Amirabad

Can Mullah Omar retire quietly to the suburbs of Kandahar if he hands the city over to his opponents, disbands his army and says he's really, really sorry?

That was the question hanging over Thursday's agreement by the Taliban to cede Kandahar, its last stronghold, to opposition forces. By Friday, it was a moot point as many Taliban fighters simply headed for the hills rather than hand their weapons over to Mullah Naqibullah, a veteran mujahedeen commander of the anti-Soviet war who helped the Taliban to power but later fell out with its leaders. Opposition forces entering the city found no sign of the Taliban?s reclusive leader.

A deal brokered Thursday between Taliban commanders and Hamid Karzai, commander of opposition forces to the north of Kandahar and de facto leader of the post-Taliban Afghanistan, gives Afghan Taliban an amnesty and undertakes to deport foreign fighters and bring terrorists to justice. But the status under the deal of Mullah Omar, one of the prime targets of the U.S. campaign, remains unclear.

A Taliban spokesman said the agreement provided for Mullah Omar to remain in Kandahar under house arrest by Naqibullah. The Bush administration insists that the Taliban leader be punished for harboring terrorists, and not be allowed to remain in southern Afghanistan. More immediately, the U.S. would dearly love to talk to the Taliban leader about the whereabouts of his erstwhile guest (and alleged father-in-law) Osama bin Laden. But it remains to be seen whether the U.S. position is shared by Karzai.

Why Karzai is hedging

The new Afghan leader told CNN Thursday that amnesty had been extended to "common Taliban," but Mullah Omar would have to make an "explicitly clear" renunciation of terrorism or "he will not be safe." To the BBC he said Mullah Omar would be granted the same amnesty as his men if he renounced terrorism and dissociated himself from al Qaeda. And in an interview with the AP, Karzai when asked whether Mullah Omar would be arrested in line with U.S. demands said, "Those are the details that we still have to work out. I'm not saying anything right now.'' Then, on Friday he announced that Mullah Omar had failed to meet a deadline to renounce terrorism.

Karzai's hedging may be a reflection of his own precarious political position, caught between Pashtun politics and the need to stay on the right side of the U.S. An ethnic Pashtun loyal to the exiled King Zahir Shah, Karzai's political base remains narrow even among the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. He heads up a government dominated by the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, and right now that government remains little more than an a deal on paper which is being loudly challenged by many of the regional warlords who have taken over from the Taliban but feel shortchanged by the political deal brokered between various exiles and the Northern Alliance in Germany.

In order to shore up his Pashtun base before taking office, Karzai needs to ease the Taliban out of Kandahar — even if they're not exactly destroyed as a fighting force. Indeed, Karzai's political version includes drawing repentant moderate Taliban leaders into a future political arrangement. Also, he can't afford to alienate the Pashtuns, or wider Afghan constituencies, by appearing to simply do the bidding of the U.S., which is not overwhelmingly popular even among anti-Taliban elements. Karzai pointedly told the BBC he had not discussed Mullah Omar's fate with Washington, insisting "this is an Afghan question." Still, Karzai?s political survival will also depend on his ability to deliver on promises to rebuild Afghanistan, and he can?t afford to fall out with the U.S. and the donor community.

Struggle for power

The surrender of Kandahar has closed the final chapter of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. But what comes next is far from clear, despite the widely acclaimed political agreement in the German town of Koenigswinter between four rival Afghan factions. It took some dramatic arm twisting and a promise of $20 billion in reconstruction aid to broker the deal in which Karzai will lead a 30-member interim cabinet that will govern for six months before a broadly-representative 'loya jirga' assembly is convened. The agreement also provides for an international security force to be deployed in Kabul, despite earlier opposition from elements of the Northern Alliance.

But those present at the talks did were far from a representative cross-section of the many armed formations which currently wield effective power on the ground in different parts of southern, northern and western Afghanistan. Already General Rashid Dostum, whose Uzbek Northern Alliance forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif, has vowed to boycott the new government and prevent it from functioning in his domain. Although the Northern Alliance holds 17 of the 30 cabinet posts, Dostum feels slighted by his Tajik alliance partners who got the plum jobs. And that's not the half of it: The Tajik Northern Alliance representatives at the talks also had to sidestep their leader, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, in order to cut a deal — one Tajik aide at Koenigswinter told reporters that Rabbani was old and ought to retire, but there is no sign that the man currently in charge in Kabul agrees. Most of the Pashtun warlords currently staking out their fiefdoms in the Taliban's old stomping ground weren't even represented in Germany, and there are a number of other warlords elsewhere who may feel snubbed.

The Koenigswinter deal — the fifth attempt to create an Afghanistan government by consensus since the Soviets departed in 1989 — was hammered out by diplomats from the various factions, under the persuasive ministrations of the international community. But political authority on the ground remains in the hands of the various warlords and armies who filled the void left by the retreating Taliban. Even if the international community sends a peacekeeping force to Kabul, the country faces an uphill battle to shed a political culture based on Mao's dictum that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."