September 29, 2009

The Real Death of Mullah Omar

Apparently Octopus Mountain caught a glimpse of the future. Days after hypothesizing Mullah Omar’s death and what to do with him alive, Pakistani officials verified reports that America recently demanded action on the “Quetta shura” - or else.

“It wasn’t so much a threat as an understanding that if you don’t do anything, we’ll take matters into our own hands,” said one official.

President Obama presumably has decided to pull the trigger on Mullah Omar. The London Times reported that White House officials requested permission to expand drone strikes into Quetta and the surrounding Baluchistan province, where Omar and his leadership are thought to be hiding. U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson told the Washington Post the Quetta shura was “high on Washington’s list."

Having foreseen this plan, Western intelligence officers claim the Taliban are in the process of relocating to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city with a million hiding spots. The White House is contemplating sending commandos into Quetta to capture or kill Omar and his leadership before they move.

In light of these reports we must look towards a future without Mullah Omar, but many obstacles block the view.

President Obama’s murky intentions must first be discerned. Does he intend to kill or capture? Omar has far more value alive, either as an information source, bargaining chip, or negotiating partner. Omar could also commit suicide before being captured and drones imply killing, so Obama isn’t leaning towards alive. While it appears logical to eliminate the Taliban leadership, this plan feels a little cheap, like a shortcut for Afghanistan and Obama’s problems. Killing Omar and all his generals at once could provide a more secure environment for nation-building, but what if he can’t be killed?

Omar, assuming he’s actually in Quetta, is surrounded by a complex security system. Physical defenses like fortifications, bodyguards, and disguises intertwine with cultural and political protection. America is frustrated by Pakistan’s opposition to expanded drone strikes and its alleged complicity in hiding Omar. Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, denied that Omar was in Quetta in response to the story.

“Over and again this topic has been coming up. But Quetta shura according to us does not exist in Quetta," Malik asserted. “What we are requesting to the U.S. and U.K. and all other stockholders, please give us real-time information. If you know that they are present you must be knowing their names, details... if there is any sign of Quetta shura, we will smash it.”

Though the Pakistani government’s resolve to fight terrorists is no longer doubted in American circles, Malik is hard to take seriously. American intelligence has flaws but it’s hard to believe Pakistan came to the opposition conclusion. This back-and-forth between American and Pakistani officials is a clear pattern as it mirrors the exchange over Osama bin Laden’s location. America believes the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s leadership is in Pakistan - and Pakistan has rebuffed the claim every time.

Malik may be telling the truth, but only from his perspective. Though the government appears off the hook, America still deeply distrusts Pakistan’s army and the ISI in particular, according to a new intelligence report. Supporters inside these organizations are believed to be protecting Mullah Omar behind the government’s back. Pakistani officials slammed the report, insisting the ISI has been cleaned up. Naturally no American official believes this, a bad sign for Obama.

Yet he would encounter hurdles even if the government and army were on his side. Notice how Malik reveals states “we will smash it,” not America. Thus Omar may end up in a Pakistani jail or court. While Pakistan could transfer him to America, it may also refuse. The problem is one of control. Pakistan would likely use Omar as its own bargaining chip against Obama.

The second problem ties into the first. Pakistan opposes a US operation against Mullah Omar because of rampant anti-Americanism. A drone strike or special ops raid in Quetta would meet with low approval from the locals even if civilians don't die. Quetta is a dense city and a ground operation is the most accurate option, but not with American flags on the shoulders. A unilateral operation so deep in Pakistan is a big gamble, the price of a prize like Omar.

Another layer is added to the general resentment of Pakistanis. Quetta is different from the FATA in that it’s Balochistan territory. Balochistan isn't the stablest region, in case American officials haven’t been reading the news. The deaths of three political leaders in April are only the latest eruption in a steep conflict. Balochs, fiercely independent, dislike the Pakistani government and are unlikely to welcome US intrusion. Does America really want to chance an uprising in Balochistan?

It’s obvious why Pakistan opposes action against Mullah Omar - it must deal with the repercussions.

Assume, though, for theoretical purposes that America does manage to kill Omar. How will the war in Afghanistan be affected? Hezbollah and Hamas have successfully transitioned through assassination, but Omar’s death cannot be underestimated. He is the vision of the Taliban, the undisputed king of jihad in Afghanistan. He has others to take his place if they stay alive, such as Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, but Omar’s presence could be irreplaceable. Of course Israel and America said the same thing of Hamas before the deaths of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in 2004.

The possibility always exists that Mullah Omar’s death would be impossible to recover from, but this still isn’t an alternative to additional troops. In fact, Omar’s death could explicitly precipitate more troops. The hydra’s neck must be burned once the head is chopped off and that means extensive nation-building in Afghanistan. Considering that the war will deteriorate further before potentially getting better, America will need more troops to ensure Omar’s death wasn’t in vain.

Then the possibility remains that Omar’s death is survivable. Omar is a realist and as one of the world’s most wanted men, he’s undoubtedly prepared the Taliban for his death. The Pakistani Taliban had too many options behind Baitullah Mehsud, giving the appearance of infighting, and the real Taliban have even more replacements. Omar’s popularity shouldn’t be underestimated either; unpopular as the Taliban may be, Omar is something of a folk hero. Making a martyr out of him would be catastrophic.

No one really knows how Afghans would react if he was killed. We may find out sooner than later with President Obama growing increasingly desperate for solutions in Afghanistan.

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