Would Killing Mullah Omar Help America?

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Secretive: This grainy, undated photograph reportedly shows Mullah Omar. AP

Hamid Karzai's three-day "peace jirga" has ended, and the Afghan president is calling it a success. "Now the path is clear, the path that has been shown and chosen by you," he told the roughly 1,600 delegates at the gathering on Friday. "We will go on that, step by step, and this path will, God willing, take us to our destination." Really? No active Taliban members—not even former ones of any stature—took part, unless you count two suicide attackers who showed up on Wednesday, one of them disguised as a woman, for Karzai's opening address. (The only reported deaths were those of the attackers themselves.) The jirga's participants, who were handpicked by Karzai, chose a less than conciliatory chairman: Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and onetime head of the Taliban's sworn enemies, the Northern Alliance. And in the end, the gathering passed a nonbinding resolution asking Karzai to "establish a framework for negotiations with those who are dissatisfied with the government." That category would include practically everyone in Afghanistan.

Most Afghans aren't too pleased with the Taliban, either. Mullah Mohammed Omar and his men are unreconstructed jihadis. Their medieval Islamist outlook is compounded by their strict and sometimes inhumanly harsh rural Pashtun codes encouraging vengeance, viewing women as chattel, and seeking eye-for-an-eye justice. Since 9/11 they have teamed up with Al Qaeda when necessary against their common enemies: America and its Afghan and Pakistani allies. In the name of attacking the Americans, the Taliban has killed thousands of Afghan civilians using Qaeda-provided suicide-bomber indoctrination methods and technology and IED expertise. War-weary Afghans can only wish they would all go away.

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What does America expect to accomplish in Afghanistan? If the point is to drive Al Qaeda out of the country, the job is done. Most of Al Qaeda's leadership is said to be hiding in the mountains of Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area. Their chief aim now seems to be survival above all. For protection, shelter, and sustenance they're utterly dependent on Pakistani tribesmen who are paid well for their assistance. Meanwhile, America's drone aircraft keep finding and destroying jihadist hideouts (together with an undetermined number of luckless civilians), forcing Qaeda operatives to lie low and refrain from electronic communications with the outside world or even among themselves.

And no matter what happens in Afghanistan, there's precious little chance that bin Laden and his crew will ever be welcomed back. The Arabs' attitude of smug condescension has always irritated the Afghans, and a deeply uneasy relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban dates back to years before bin Laden's belligerence toward the United States got Mullah Omar's followers driven out of their home country. The respected Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai tells of having several face-to-face interviews with Mullah Omar and receiving a string of phone calls from him between 1998 and late 2001, in which the Taliban leader sought Yusufzai's advice on how to deal with the uncontrollable bin Laden. The Qaeda leader insisted on holding press conferences on Afghan soil, spouting foolish challenges against America's military strength for audiences of Pakistani journalists who had entered the country illegally, even though Omar had forbidden such performances.

For years, Omar spilled out a long list of complaints to Yusufzai about bin Laden. But either out of Pashtunwali (the ancient tribal code of honor and hospitality) or stupidity, or both, the Afghan leader would not move against his unruly guest—especially not by handing him over to the Americans to be locked up and put on trial. Just before the U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan began in October 2001, the cloistered Omar asked Yusufzai if sending bin Laden to Chechnya would be a solution. Yusufzai had to inform him that the Russians had defeated the Islamist Chechen rebels and would either kill bin Laden or hand him over to the Americans if they caught him in Chechnya. Mullah Omar finally lost Afghanistan on principle, a decision for which many of his followers have yet to forgive him.

U.S. policymakers justify America's involvement in Afghanistan as the best way to counter and destroy Al Qaeda. But the 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops, together with an equal number of Afghan soldiers, are fighting not bin Laden but a peasant militia that wears cheap sandals, carries small arms and RPGs, and plants IEDs. If those insurgents ever think about Al Qaeda, it's probably to wonder why Mullah Omar sacrificed his Islamic emirate to protect bin Laden. The longer the war has dragged on, the more radical and uncompromising the Taliban has become. The American surge may interrupt the momentum the Afghan insurgents gained while America was distracting itself in Iraq, but the Taliban is sure to remain within striking distance of the newly "cleared" areas, and embedded within the civilian population. In the face of a reinforced U.S. presence, the insurgents don't appear to be short of recruits or hurt by flagging morale. Quite the contrary.

In fact, the surge in Helmand and Kandahar provinces clearly has nothing to do with Al Qaeda and everything to do with propping up Karzai's feeble and corrupt regime. The Afghan president and his administration are the weak link in America's strategy. Not only has Kabul proved largely incapable of effectively governing and developing the areas it has long controlled, but it has failed to move vigorously into areas that U.S. Army and Marine reinforcements have retaken from the Taliban. America may be waging an exemplary hearts-and-minds campaign, but it can't work without greater effort from Kabul.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces are hunting for Mullah Omar, along with bin Laden and his Egyptian partner in terrorism, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as "high-value targets." There's a cruel logic to that: although Omar—unlike the two Qaeda mass murderers—has been responsible for no known attacks on U.S. soil, the survival and future direction of the Taliban probably depend on him. The Taliban fighters themselves fear that his death or capture would immediately create splits in their ranks. "He is our biggest asset and the reason for the Taliban's unity," a senior Afghan insurgent told NEWSWEEK recently in Karachi.

Omar could settle many issues among his followers, perhaps even urge them to accept a peace deal, with only a few words, either in person or in an audio recording. "But he has never done that so far," the senior insurgent said. "The slightest sign of involvement by Mullah Omar might provide a clue to his trail. So he stays away." That remoteness frustrates many Taliban members, even though they understand the need for secrecy. "I question the wisdom of keeping away his voice from the many fighting for the thousands who have sacrificed their lives in his name," says a Taliban intelligence officer who declined to be named for security reasons.

There's a fatal flaw in the present U.S. policy of dismissing Mullah Omar as "irreconcilable" and demanding that his troops lay down their arms, come in from the cold, and accept the current Afghan Constitution. Those are terms of surrender that would be dictated to a vanquished foe. The Taliban is far from beaten. Some insurgents may give up the fight. But most commanders and fighters seem to be in this for the long, long run. They, too, are largely irreconcilable in terms of U.S. policy as it stands. Something will have to change. And eventually Karzai may get his wish for talks with the Taliban—but he may not like what he hears.