The two presidents -- Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama -- were onstage together in the East Room of the White House for 40 minutes May 12. They each talked about how they had differed in the past and how committed they are to going forward together. Both leaders expressed great hope in their mutual "quest for peace" and the forthcoming "peace jirga," or "reconciliation talks," to be held in Kabul at the end of this month. Neither the leaders nor any of the journalists present mentioned a cease-fire or the unseen skunk at their picnic, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Mullah Omar, secretive head of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, is one of the most wanted men on earth. His sanguinary regime sheltered Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida as it prepared for the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. government's Rewards for Justice program has a standing offer of "up to $10 million" for information resulting in his capture or confirmed death because he "represents a continuing threat to America and her allies." Now, thanks to Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, Mullah Omar may be a key factor in the upcoming "peace talks" trumpeted by Obama and Karzai at their joint White House news conference.
Both heads of state avoided reference to the ISI or Mullah Omar as they gushed about the "consultative peace jirga," which starts in Kabul on May 29. And each president spoke glowingly about "commitment" to an "Afghan-led peace process" that allegedly will produce a negotiated settlement among Afghanistan's warring parties -- and the country's neighbors, meaning Pakistan and Iran. Karzai announced he wanted to consult with "thousands of Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of al-Qaida or other terrorist networks or controlled from outside in any manner troublesome to us."
Obama observed that the "peace talks" will include those who have "a respect for the Afghan Constitution, rule of law (and) human rights, so long as they are willing to renounce violence and ties to al-Qaida and other extremist networks." An awkwardly worded joint communiqu<é>e vaguely noted U.S. "support for an inclusive process that includes broad representation from across all of Afghan society -- both men and women -- and takes into account their concerns and priorities."
All of this sounds very promising to the so-called "international community" and the self-declared mainstream media. It makes the striped-pants set all warm and fuzzy to see two leaders who last month appeared to be very much at odds now standing side by side to pledge their troth. And of course, the forthcoming "peace talks" mean diplomats, not warriors, are about to have their day. Unfortunately, none of this takes into account ISI plotting about the role it intends to play in Afghanistan's future, the part being played by longtime ISI ally Mullah Omar or the nearly total lack of intelligence on what's really happening on the ground on each side of the Af-Pak border.
This lack of intelligence was evident last week -- in the aftermath of the failed Times Square bombing -- when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proffered a blunt indictment of Pakistani cooperation with the U.S. Her stunning comment, "I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida is (sic), where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is (sic)," created a diplomatic firestorm.
Let's hope Clinton was dissembling, because intelligence sources here in the U.S. and Afghanistan inform me that Pakistani officials indeed do know exactly where Mullah Omar is: in the hands of the ISI. This should not be news to the U.S. secretary of state.
Last month, while I was still in Afghanistan, rumors were circulating that the ISI had detained Mullah Omar in Karachi, Pakistan, March 27 and placed him under house arrest in what they call "community care." American operatives say he has since been transferred to a secret ISI lockup under the Pakistani euphemism "institutional care." According to several reports, all of this information was confirmed to U.S. officials by a senior Pakistani military officer "several weeks ago."
"Why would the ISI take down 'one of their own'?" I asked. The answer came in a mixed metaphor, but the meaning was clear: "The ISI intends to be in the driver's seat when the 'peace talks' get under way in Afghanistan later this month. And the ISI officers calling the shots know Mullah Omar is the best bargaining chip they have."
None of this bodes well for the "consultative peace jirga," on which Obama has placed his imprimatur. Some of those watching preparations for the "peace talks" predict a call for an immediate Vietnam-style cease-fire as a precondition for the conference -- and a demand to grant Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden's closest ally, safe haven in Saudi Arabia. If the Obama administration agrees to any of this, it will be akin to putting perfume on a skunk.