RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — The U.S. must negotiate a political settlement to the Afghanistan war directly with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar because any bid to split the insurgency through defections will fail, said the Pakistani former intelligence officer who trained the insurgent chief.
Omar is open to such talks, asserted retired Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar, a former operative of Pakistan's premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. He is popularly known as Colonel Imam, whose exploits have gained him near-legendary status in central Asia.
"If a sincere message comes from the Americans, these people (the Taliban) are very big-hearted. They will listen. But if you try to divide the Taliban, you'll fail. Anyone who leaves Mullah Omar is no more Taliban. Such people are just trying to deceive," said Tarar, a tall, imposing man with a long gray beard and white turban, in an interview with McClatchy.
His comments came as the U.S. and its NATO allies appear increasingly anxious to find a path toward a political resolution to the more than eight-year-old war whose escalating human and financial costs are fueling growing popular opposition.
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In Washington, U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones was asked by McClatchy if the Obama administration ruled out having the ISI act as a conduit between Omar and the U.S., as Pakistani officials are advocating.
"We are pursuing a general strategy of engagement," replied Jones, a former four-star Marine general. "We'll see where this takes us."
Senior U.S. and European officials have in recent days been heavily promoting a "re-integration" plan under which low-level Taliban fighters are to be offered jobs, education and protection in return for renouncing al Qaida and defecting to the Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to unveil the initiative at an international conference on Afghanistan in London on Thursday.
Karzai also is being encouraged to reach out to senior Taliban leaders, who U.S. commanders think may be induced to switch sides under the pressure of a stepped up military campaign by the 116,000-strong U.S.-led international force bolstered by 30,000 more American soldiers, most of who are due to arrive this summer.
"The U.S. remains committed to continued engagement by the Afghan government to politically reconcile any Afghan citizen willing to renounce al Qaida and violence and to accept the Afghan Constitution," said an administration official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Some U.S. officials and experts, however, see little chance for progress on a political resolution.
Omar, who has led the Taliban since its inception in 1992 and is thought to be directing the insurgency from a sanctuary in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, has repeatedly rejected negotiations until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan, they pointed out.
"I don't think anything is happening here," said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with a journalist.
Furthermore, the insurgents have expanded to 34 of Afghanistan's 36 provinces, and they think they're winning and that they only have to out-wait the Obama administration, which set July 2011 as the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal.
"If I were sitting on the side of those trying to be brought into some kind of reconciliation process, I'd be saying time is on my side," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with long experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.
Tarar, 65, a key player in Afghanistan from the 1979-89 Soviet occupation until 2001, said he trained Omar after he graduated from an Islamic seminary in 1985 to fight as a guerrilla against the Soviet forces. At the time, the ISI was running secret camps for "mujahedin" fighters along the Afghan border with U.S. funding.
Tarar, who worked closely with the CIA and was schooled in guerrilla warfare at Fort Bragg, N.C., arranged for Omar's medical treatment after he was injured. They met again in 1994 after the Pakistani official was posted in the western Afghan city of Herat and "got closer to each other," Tarar said.
The ISI saw the potential of Omar's movement of Islamic purists in the mid-1990s and heavily backed them against the government formed by the victorious anti-Soviet mujahedin. When the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996, they gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden.
The Pakistani security establishment thinks that Omar's ambitions are limited to Afghanistan, and that the Taliban can now be persuaded to share power with other Afghan factions.
"Mullah Omar is highly respected, very faithful to his country. He's the only answer. He's a very reasonable man," said Tarar, who insisted he was speaking in a personal capacity. "He's a very effective man, no other man is effective. He's for peace, not war. The Americans don't realize this. He wants his country to be peaceful. He doesn't want to destroy his country."
Tarar said that Omar would be willing to cut a deal, if it would lead to the departure of foreign troops and included funds to rebuild Afghanistan. "I can help," he said. "But can I trust the Americans?"
Pakistan admitted last weekend that it is talking to "all levels" of the Taliban.
Western diplomats think the ISI must be involved in any negotiations or it would act as a spoiler, continuing to provide aid to the Taliban and allied insurgent groups as part of a goal to install in Kabul a pro-Pakistan regime that would sever close ties with India.
Tarar said that without talks, the war would grind on with U.S. forces ignoring the counterinsurgency textbooks that call for the use of minimal force and winning the support of the people.
"The time is on the Taliban's side. The longer the Americans stay, the more complete will be their defeat. They will not be routed but they will be worn out, psychologically and physically," he said.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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