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Deciphering Mullah Omar's Eid Message

In what could be considered the Taliban's "state-of-the-union" address, Mullah Mohammad Omar marked the end of Ramadan with a message of moderation.

His three key points:

1. Afghanistan Focused

Mullah Omar did not directly address Kabul's and Washington's consistent demands that the Afghan Taliban dissociate itself from Al-Qaeda, but his speech took care to portray his organization as one with Afghans' interests in mind, not global jihad.

Much of Mullah Omar's message reads like a political manifesto in which a maverick promises the world once voted into power. In Mullah Omar's case, this does not mean recreating the Taliban Emirate in its former mold, but the establishment of "a real Islamic regime which is acceptable to all people of the country."

He promises that "all ethnicities will have participation in the regime and portfolios will be dispensed on the basis of merit." He even takes a conciliatory stance by stating that, "contrary to the propaganda launched by [our] enemies, the policy of the Islamic Emirate is not aimed at monopolizing power."

In a break from the designs of the anti-Soviet mujahedin guerrillas in the 1980s, Mullah Omar suggests that the Taliban's overarching goal is not limited to forcing international forces out and toppling the regime they support. Taking that as a given, he hints at the post-occupation order by allaying Afghan fears of another civil war. "The future transformations and developments would not resemble the developments following the collapse of communism, when everything of the country was plundered and the State Apparatus damaged entirely," he wrote in his widely-circulated Eid al-Fitr message.

Mullah Omar knows that popular Afghan sentiment will play a decisive role in who takes the reins of power as international forces look toward their exit. In an about-face from reality, he issues detailed orders for his cadres to protect civilians. "You should respect every common individual whether he is an old man, a young, a child, or a woman.... When you face a common man, think as if you were a commoner in his place and had no weapon.... In other words, consider that person you are confronting as your father, brother, or another close relative. How would you behave toward him?"

Like an astute politician, he also promises future prosperity. "Afghanistan has vast, arable land, rich mines, and high potential of energy resources. Therefore, we can make investments in these sectors under conditions of peace and stability."

The Taliban did little to rebuild Afghanistan or to revive its economy while in control of most of the country in the 1990s. The hard-line religious movement preferred dogma over material development.

2. Negotiations

Mullah Omar's Eid message confirms that the Taliban still views peace as a long way off. He acknowledges making contact with "some parties" (meaning Americans), but says these preliminary talks so far been limited to the issue of releasing prisoners. "[These contacts] can't be called a comprehensive negotiation for the solution of the current imbroglio of the country."

Like most Afghan politicians, he expresses confidence in his countrymen's ability to find common ground. "The Afghans have a splendid tradition for solving problems and reaching an understanding amongst themselves. But this is conditioned on no foreign intervention."

3. Neighbors

Mullah Omar opposes the long-term American presence in Afghanistan in the form of military bases. This must please Afghanistan's neighbors, most of whom -- Pakistan and Iran in particular -- oppose a long-term Western military presence in the region. But he has a stern warning for neighbors. Afghans fear that Islamabad and Tehran might be again scheming to rekindle a civil conflict in Afghanistan rather than dealing with it as a stable sovereign neighbor. "We advise all countries, including the neighbors, not to become part of any colonialist game concerning the future of Afghanistan, because this will serve no one's interests," Mullah Omar warns.

Such warnings won't be welcome in Islamabad, where some in the corridors of power still look at Taliban as a guardian of its own "interests" whenever it makes it back to Kabul via conquest or political dealings. The logic behind Pakistani support for Afghan Islamists is that, unlike Afghan nationalists, they won't be swayed by Afghan "national interests."

Ultimately, the actions of Mullah Omar and the Taliban he leads will speak louder than words. His concessions to political pluralism, commitment to a broad-based government, and civilian protection come as positive news to Afghans. They will also take heart from his visions of a prosperous Afghanistan. But they will be worried about his insistence on a "real Islamic regime." The onus is on the Taliban to present the public with a detailed sketch of such a regime. A return to the Taliban Emirate in the 1990s is clearly unacceptable to most Afghans, and perhaps many within the Taliban's ranks also envision a much different political system than the one they ran in the 1990s.

For now, Mullah Omar is savoring battlefield victories. He senses war weariness among Western publics and strong doubts in the region about the West's intentions in Afghanistan. "With the passage of each day, the Mujahedin becomes more familiar with the enemy's tactics; they are gaining access to hardware that is instrumental in causing greater losses to the enemy."

But if Mullah Omar is truly interested in reaching a negotiated solution, promising that "jihad will continue unabatedly" is not really the way to present it.

-- Abubakar Siddique