Washington, 27 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On 24 April, Pakistan pardoned five tribal leaders who had been accused of harboring Al-Qaeda refugees. The next day it freed 50 suspected Al-Qaeda sympathizers arrested in a military sweep of its border with Afghanistan.
Also that day, Afghanistan's leader, Hamid Karzai, went to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar -- where he escaped an assassination attempt a year and a half ago -- and welcomed low-ranking Taliban members to return to mainstream Afghan society.
Karzai said Afghanistan's enemies include only the top 150 or so leaders of the Taliban. "If the rest of the people -- Taliban or non-Taliban, especially those in the Taliban -- want to come and live in this country, if they want to work and farm here, they are most welcome. This is their country, their home," he said. "Our dispute is only with those who destroy Afghanistan, who blow up bombs and who, with the support of foreigners, bring destruction here."
These gestures -- by two governments closely allied with the U.S.-led war on terror -- may not have been orchestrated by Washington. But they closely follow a major shift by the United States in Iraq, under which many former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party are being invited to join Iraq's indigenous armed forces and other positions.
The United States had been quick to purge Ba'athists from state structures following the fall of Baghdad. But now the U.S. State Department says that the "de-Ba'athification" policy is being refined, so that only top members of the Ba'ath Party are excluded from leading positions in a new Iraq.
According to Carpenter, it is easy to imagine a soldier pledging allegiance to the Taliban or the Ba'ath Party simply in order to keep his rank or to be promoted.
On 23 April, L. Paul Bremer, the United States' chief civilian administrator in Iraq, defended the policy but had critical words about its implementation. "Many Iraqis have complained to me that the de-Ba'athification policy has been applied unevenly and unjustly," he said. "I have looked into these complaints and they are legitimate. The de-Ba'athification policy was and is sound, the policy does not need to be changed. It is the right policy for Iraq, but it has been poorly implemented."
The conciliatory gestures toward low-ranking Taliban and Al-Qaeda members by Afghanistan and Pakistan were probably made with U.S. permission, according to Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Carpenter told RFE/RL that Bush's top foreign policy aides have long been divided over whether to maintain a hard line against anyone remotely associated with Al-Qaeda, or to engage those who are less ideologically driven. But despite these divisions, he says the Bush administration is finally recognizing the failings of its own hard line against all Iraqi Ba'athists, even those who only joined the party in order to find employment.
"There is a growing realization within the [Bush] administration that de-Ba'athification went too far. For example, disbanding the entire Iraqi army -- it would have been one thing to have purged the top echelons of the office corps of Ba'ath Party members and sympathizers. But to have eradicated the entire military because of a disproportionate percentage of Ba'athists is now regarded as a mistake -- one that helped destabilize Iraq," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Bush and his senior aides will never admit to a failing in their foreign policy. But he added that the statements by Bremer and the State Department on the revised de-Ba'athification program constitute an implicit acknowledgement of a mistake.
But Carpenter said he is encouraged because it appears that the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have independently come to the realization that not all members of an enemy group are necessarily enemies themselves.
According to Carpenter, it is easy to imagine a soldier pledging allegiance to the Taliban or the Ba'ath Party simply in order to keep his rank or to be promoted. But he said Karzai, Bush, and Musharraf also appear to realize that even civilian government officials -- technocrats -- can be just as easily distinguished from devout ideologues.
"I suspect the three programs [of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States] developed separately due to local circumstances, but there is a common thread. And that is not considering the adversary as one entity, but trying to distinguish between ideological true believers on the one hand, and those who may simply have gone along with the prevailing sentiment out of opportunism on the other," Carpenter said.
The only question, Carpenter said, is whether this realization came early enough. He notes that the United States is sticking to its 30 June deadline for handing over sovereignty to Iraqis. But with security still so tenuous, it appears that Iraqis will have only nominal control of their own political destiny until their fellow countrymen -- including many former Ba'athists -- can establish a credible security force of their own.