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Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail
Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Ahmed Rashid

Omar vs. Obama Add to ...

President Barack Obama's crucial speech today, in which he will lay out a strategy for how the United States will defeat the Taliban, will have to satisfy many different audiences around the world. It will need to be finely balanced to appease U.S. and European audiences that want a time frame for a pullout of troops from Afghanistan and Afghans who want a sustained U.S. commitment to rebuild the country.

The speech - the most important of Mr. Obama's presidency - will also be avidly listened to by the Taliban and al-Qaeda so they can figure out how to counter the future U.S. military strategy.

However, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, has already issued a long message to the world, pre-empting Mr. Obama's speech and pouring detailed scorn on many of the points that the President is likely to make. He called upon his fighters to continue the jihad and drive out foreign forces from Afghanistan, as "the arrogant enemy is facing both defeat and disgrace."

Mullah Omar's 10-page message, delivered by e-mail to journalists in English and two Afghan languages on the eve of Eid, the major religious festival in the Muslim calendar that celebrates the end of the hajj, is an unprecedented propaganda blitz.

His cleverly worded text mixes Koranic injunctions to continue the jihad and appeals to Afghan patriotism and nationalism, which had helped previous Afghan generations defeat the British Empire and the Soviet Union.

Mullah Omar has previously denied that the Taliban are allied to al-Qaeda, although it is apparent that the Taliban's new media strategy has emanated from al-Qaeda tutoring.

He urged Afghans to "break off all relations with the stooge Kabul administration," just as Mr. Obama is likely to urge Afghans to unite behind a U.S.-Afghan government strategy, even though President Hamid Karzai was re-elected after a deeply flawed election that undermined his credibility.

Mr. Obama is also likely to endorse negotiations with "moderate" Taliban in order to divide the movement and win over those not committed to al-Qaeda. Secret talks brokered by Saudi Arabia between the Taliban and Mr. Karzai's officials have now stalled.

Mullah Omar's reply is blunt. "Those who have occupied our country and taken our people as hostage want to use the stratagem of negotiation like they used the drama of elections … in order to achieve their colonialist objectives. The invaders do not want negotiations aimed at granting independence to Afghanistan but … to prolong their evil process of colonization and occupation," he said.

Mr. Obama's expected call for a rapid "Afghanization" of the war by speeding up training of the Afghan army and police was also countered by Mullah Omar. "The enemy wants you [Afghans]to lay his gun over your shoulder and kill your countrymen, but you should try … to part ways with the evil."

He urged his fighters to accept the surrender of Afghan soldiers and police with good grace and generosity. He also directed Taliban commanders to target U.S forces but avoid civilian casualties, saying Islamic law does not sanction the murder of common people. Mr. Obama is also likely to insist that U.S. forces will restrain from mistakenly targeting civilians. According to the United Nations, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of 2009 - 70 per cent of them due to Taliban attacks.

The President's likely call to give more support to Afghan officials and tribal leaders in the country's 34 provinces in a new bottom-up strategy to provide services to the people was also tackled by Mullah Omar, who urged his followers "to pay respect to elders and influentials among the people and have compassion over the youngsters."

To Afghanistan's neighbours and the Islamic world, he promised that a Taliban regime would bring peace, non-interference and "good conduct." He said the Taliban pose no threat to neighbouring countries. Sounding like a leader addressing the United Nations, he said: "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants to take constructive measures together with all countries for mutual co-operation, economic development and good future on the basis of mutual respect."

Finally, Mullah Omar pointedly rejected Mr. Obama's stance that the conflict in Afghanistan is "a war of necessity," saying that "this is a farce weapon in the hands of colonialists … to throw dust into the eyes of the people." He said that "the enemy will lose heart and you will have the honour to defeat the greatest colonialist power of this century."

This is a critical moment for the U.S.-led alliance and the majority of Afghans, who, despite their frustration and anger at the West for failing to rebuild the country, still do not want a Taliban regime to destroy the progress that has taken place so far.

Yet Taliban attacks have intensified this year more than any other time since 2001, U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization casualties have escalated dramatically and the Taliban have now occupied large areas in the previously peaceful west and north of the country. Any increase in U.S. troops is likely to be met by a fierce response.

Mr. Obama's speech must be followed up quickly by intensive political, economic and military actions on the ground to convince the Afghan people, Afghanistan's neighbours and the troops provided by European countries that the United States is serious about turning the tide in Afghanistan and that Mullah Omar's message remains rhetoric rather than reflecting any reality.

Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and the author of the bestselling Taliban and Jihad. His latest book is Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

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