BY SHIRAZ MAHER
A new message from Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, recently surfaced marking the Islamic festival of Eid which passed just over two weeks ago. His verbose letter offers the usual ramblings of jihadist leaders but given the intensity of the current conflict in Afghanistan merits close scrutiny.
Most interesting is the apparent olive-branch he offers Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI – an organisation whose links to the Taliban have caused real concern in the West. Of course, the Taliban is largely a brainchild of the ISI who regarded the group as a necessary buffer against Soviet intrusion into Central Asia. After all, had the Soviet Union succeeded in taking Kabul then Pakistan feared it would be next. Once the Taliban triumphed in 1989, they continued serving Pakistan’s strategic interests in the region by targeting Indian forces in Kashmir.
More recently that relationship has been strained after the Taliban forces encroached ever further into Pakistan, at one time sitting just 70 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. When the ISI reassessed its relationship with the Taliban they responded by attempting to destabilise the country. This included a terrorist attack on the provincial headquarters of the ISI in Lahore, killing seven Intelligence Officers in the process. Addressing ISI concerns, Mullah Omar writes:
We consider the whole region as a common home against colonialism and want to play our role in peace and stability of the region. We assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible force, will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others as it itself does not allow others to jeopardize us.
It amounts to a tacit acceptance that the Taliban overreached by providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 and that they were wrong to destabilise Pakistan in recent years. Mullah Omar later admonishes his fighters for their ‘transgressions’, suggesting he is now prepared to strike a Faustian pact with the ISI – acquiescence for stability. The portrayal of Western intervention in the region as ‘colonialism’ in this context has massive significance too. The legacy of imperial rule in the subcontinent is frequently invoked by Islamists to widespread sympathy. He explains:
No country in the world has right to meddle in the internal affairs of its neighboring country according to the modern international principles. The arrogant powers-that-be at the White House and its British Ally should know their interference from thousands of kilometers away is never acceptable to the countries of the region and can never be tolerated. The plans of colonial expansionism which is under way in the region under the notorious and unlawful slogan of war on terrorism is, in fact, an endeavor against the universal human values, justice, peace, equal distribution of resources and independence- an endeavor tainting the true representatives of the aspirations of the people under one or another name.
Parsing his prose reveals a significant development in the evolving language of global jihad. Islamist groups were previously vociferous in their denunciation of anything even remotely associated with the West’s post-enlightenment culture. ‘Human Rights are kufr’ they blared. The argument went: Islam offers an alternative and distinct value system which does not make any reference to Western values. Now, conscious of the need to sell their ideas to a Western audience Jihadist leaders are increasingly invoking the idioms of Western liberalism to soften perceptions of their political agenda.
This is not limited to Mullah Omar but is a trend noticeable in the majority of Jihadist literature emerging at present. Increasingly, Jihadists are starting to speak in vague terms of pursuing ‘human rights’, ‘social justice’, ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’. It might sound reasonable enough, but they tell us nothing about the way in which they conceive those values to actually work in practice – or the manner in which they hope to realise them. For example, Mullah Omar would argue that stoning adulterers and executing homosexuals achieves ‘social justice’ according to his worldview. That much is confirmed when he says:
Our goal is to gain independence of the country and establish a just Islamic system there on the basis of the aspirations of the Muslim nation. We can consider any option that could lead to the achievement of this goal.
Yet, despite his apparent peace-offering to Pakistan, Mullah Omar continues to employ al-Qaeda’s grizzly concept of takfir, declaring any Muslim who opposes his message as an apostate and consequently deserving of death. He explains:
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on all those who work in the surrogate Kabul administration and shore up the global colonialism by their being there to stop opposing your religion, country and people. ..The Islamic Emirate has left door of safety open for whomever depart with the ways of betrayal and treason with the country and people.
But for those who don’t, they should:
bear in mind that the current popular Islamic revolution against the invaders is forging ahead like a powerful flood. Anyone who opts to resist it will himself be washed away.
In other words: do as we say or we’ll kill you.
Mullah Omar’s Eid message is a masterstroke of Jihadist diplomacy. Fighting a long-war he has the luxury of time. Capitalising on Obama’s continuing indecision over America’s ‘AfPak’ strategy, Mullah Omar’s attempt to seduce Pakistan with the offer of a truce in return for security could convince some that it’s in their interests to strike a deal. That would fatally undermine allied activity in the region at a time when their resolve already looks to be weakened – something Mullah Omar is seeking to exploit. The same offer applies to Afghans opposing his men: recant and you shall be saved. On the other hand, of course, is the threat to ‘wash away’ anyone who opposes him, making it clear that he’s prepared to fight a trenchant campaign if needed.
In a region growing increasingly tired of war and unsure of how an effective endgame might be reached, Mullah Omar’s offer could yet find a sympathetic audience.