15 OCTOBER 2009


Quotes attributed to senior security operatives in mainstream dailies are not usually meant merely to illuminate. They are intended as messages or signals.

What clearer message could be sent to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar than a "quotation of the day" from The New York Times on 11 October. Initially placed on the front page came an analysis from Bruce Reidel, a former CIA officer and co-ordinator of policy on Afghanistan. It goes as follows:

"He's a semi-literate individual who has met with no more than a handful of non-Muslims in his entire life. And he's staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern history."

Wow. The one-eyed Mullah must now be giggling in his cave. In the kingdom of the politically blind, the one-eyed Mullah is king.

Apparently, earlier signals during the week quoting varied U.S. officials that some engagement with Taliban was requested were deemed inadequate. Remember, the Mullah is semi-literate. A clearer message was in order. Security to Security, so to speak.

Mind you, Mullah Omar is not totally illiterate. After a harrowing experience, he knows about The New York Times, though he may not be aware of its recent downhill trend -- certainly not about website competition, decrease in advertisements, and erosion of its reporting credibility. For some watching -- even with limited capacity -- from the neighbourhood of Kandahar, The New York Times is The New York Times. The message must have been duly noted.

For over a year the Saudis have been offering mediation with the Taliban. They were the only country that had officially recognized them. They need a foothold back. So do Pakistani Secret Service officers, sandwiched between an increasingly isolated and slippery Karzai and more demanding U.S. envoys. AFPAK has become a big headache for them. Perhaps the Americans would get some satisfaction out of a side show that would look like a main show. Karzai needs some Pashtun Taliban on his side, to balance the overwhelming Tajiks who control his regimes' armed forces. The Iranians have been helpful across the border near Herat, though a recent (almost successful) attempt to kill Ismael Khan, a Shiite Afghan warlord, raised questions as to who done it. What's a U.S. plan co-ordinator to do?

Apropos America, the Mullah who was bombed into the stone age in 2003 must be fully aware of its strength -- as well as with the discreet deals proposed by of some of its envoys. UNOCAL and the pipeline may be an old -- overlooked -- story elsewhere, but the fundamentalist Afghani would recall several names of those described as a few non-Muslims he had met. He may be puzzled that some of them are still around in an updated incarnation. But why would he complain if they seek his comeback. As the saying goes: the people of Mecca are better acquainted with its alleyways.

As to women, they were at least safe walking down the street under his rule, as long as they wore their burqa. Now they can't go anywhere without being assaulted. Fraudulent elections? No need for a vote at all as the Emir of the Faithful alone reflected the will of the Almighty. But then from his corner, he's open for a bargain. As they say in the Hammam: one wet hand washes the other.

Intriguing days to come on the road to Kabul.

Elaborate "strategic" articles have been placed to suggest gently that combating the predominant opium trade -- the largest in the world -- would no more be a priority. "If we're going to win the hearts and minds of the people, how could we deprive those poor farmers of their means of livelihood?" Iran has been very helpful in Afghanistan and it may be better to work an arrangement there. There were fraudulent elections but there is no other alternative President but Hamid Karzai. Vice President (and actual ruler) Qassem Fahim, is accused of smuggling drugs in his official plane and he should not be officially recognized, but perhaps he could be contacted through certain officers strictly as Defense Minister. Although we are there to fight the Taliban, a terrorist group, we understand that a deal with it is feasible; its reclusive leader is recognized to have "staged one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history."

You say you need 40,000 more troops?