U.S. officials are in a panic trying to find the elusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar because he's the only individual, in their minds, with sufficient authority to bless a political settlement on behalf of most Afghan insurgents. However, Omar's whereabouts remain a mystery -- presuming he's still alive -- which is beginning to unnerve White House officials who'd like to see a modicum of a deal in place in Afghanistan before the thick of President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign, even if such a deal excludes the "silent majority" of Afghans -- you know, that nonviolent, non-extremist and uncorrupt segment of society.
Scores of pundits believe Obama would be well-served if an agreement were struck between the Afghan government and the Taliban well ahead of next February's Iowa Caucus, which could help assuage the anti-war left. However, such an agreement certainly wouldn't serve the interests of most Afghans who would rather not endure life under Karzai or the Taliban -- let alone the two together.
It's hard to imagine Obama not winning the Democratic primary again but if NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan is especially rocky, it could hang over team Obama like a specter on the campaign trail. Attacks by spurned liberals and Hillary Clinton saboteurs -- those supporters still aching from 2008 when Obama ironically defeated their candidate because of her vote in favor of the Iraq war -- could force the President to enter the general election a wounded candidate, causing him to be vulnerable to a Republican challenger like Mitt Romney, especially if job recovery performance is less-than-stellar and assuming the religious right can get past Romney's Mormonism.
Hence, Obama needs Omar. Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai, who met and interviewed Mullah Omar 10 times, said he was indispensable to any peace deal: "If Mullah Omar is out of the way, the Taliban could not field another strong personality, and the movement would likely split apart."
U.S. and Afghan intelligence have illustrated their desperation by spreading fabrications about Omar's death to flush out the Taliban leader, hoping to provoke him to react with too much haste and angrily issue denials via statements or audio recordings that could give up his position. Not to mention, American officials have also been circulating tales about U.S. "exploratory" talks with a senior aide to Omar. But British officials cast doubt on these claims last week, reporting how U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman was scrambling, but so far failing, to find any credible members of the Taliban willing to even engage in "talks about talks".
Rumors about Mullah Omar have abounded for years, the most popular of which has him taking sanctuary in Quetta under the protection of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Yet Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir scoffs at the depiction of Pakistan's spy agency and the Quetta Shura as bedfellows. According to Mir, the Taliban's supreme commander doesn't trust the ISI and has even accused them of helping the CIA kill Taliban commanders. In addition, Omar reportedly told a close associate recently that he had no desire to open up a dialogue with any Western officials.
This animus explains conjectures that Omar might be rotting in some underground Pakistani prison -- which is hard to digest given Pakistan's undeniable complicity in the very birth of the Taliban movement itself. Pakistan's own president, Asif Ali Zardari, told NBC News in a 2009 interview the Taliban were a CIA/ISI creation. Thus, many Afghans believe awarding the Taliban with any power would be tantamount to gifting Islamabad with undue sway in Kabul.
The fact the Taliban aren't a true national liberation movement complicates matters as well because they lack a single leader capable of delivering all of the insurgents into a peace settlement. Omar himself doesn't speak for certain Taliban-affiliates such as the Haqqani Network and Hezb-e Islami.
The U.S. is trying to simplify this equation by locking the Haqqanis out of the entire process because they are viewed as "irreconcilable", too closely-aligned with Al Qaeda and a pawn of the Pakistani state. American officials perceive the Quetta Shura, on the other hand, as being much easier to decouple from the global jihad, which explains their exclusive outreach to Omar. And based on the recent tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan there might be some legitimacy to claims Omar has forsaken his creators, making him even more attractive to the U.S.
But it doesn't appear as if the insurgents are in a negotiating mood. From the Taliban perspective, it isn't talking season -- it's fighting season, illustrated by the coalition death toll reaching 55 in May, the most violent month of 2011. Michael Scheuer the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, was bold enough to suggest the Taliban were winning the war -- an assessment followed by the reasonable question: "Why would they negotiate?"
The Obama administration's biggest problem isn't its inability to find Omar, but its inability -- or refusal -- to recognize the undemocratic perfidy of a power-sharing arrangement that undermines Afghan self-determination by simply bestowing political power to Taliban leaders without the consent of the governed.
As Thomas Ruttig has written, a deal that enables the elite to monopolize power will not bring peace to Afghanistan. A much broader political compromise is needed that involves a representative cross-section of the Afghan nation, including, according to Ruttig, "what is usually called civil society."