It’s all the rage in Chicago. Would-be brokers, foreign friends and insiders of Barack Obama’s transition team, are offering to help him reach accommodations with America’s primary enemies.
The Saudis are bustling between Washington and the Taliban and, according to some quarters in Pakistan, between the US and al Qaeda. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources strongly doubt the latter. A number of Saudi nationals are known by the royal house to be in direct touch with al Qaeda, through middlemen, but Washington is not party to this give-and-take.
More credible is Riyadh’s consent in recent weeks to additionally liaise between the US government and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and commander of the armed forces Gen. Pervez Ashfaq Kiani, for three important reasons:
1. America is in no state financially to come to the aid of Pakistan and meet its pressing need for billions of dollars to bolster the Zardari presidency and fight the rising insurgency. The Saudis agreed to be the go-between for Pakistan’s political, military and financial needs, sift through Islamabad’s applications to Washington and cover some of Pakistan’s needs themselves.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East informants point out that this is the first time ever that Washington has sought the help of a foreign government to bankroll its external policies and war on terror.
Saudis mediate between US and Taliban, Washington and Islamabad
2. The Bush administration has shunted responsibility for the Pakistani president over to Riyadh because of the high urgency of propping up the Zardari regime, shaken as it is by internal quarrels and deep financial distress.
The Americans feel they have burned their hands enough by getting involved in Pakistani presidential politics on the side of the former president Pervez Musharraf and the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto.
3. They are leaving Pakistan to the Saudis additionally because of Zardari’s delicate personal relations with his main rival, Nawaf Sharif, a protege of the royal house in Riyadh.
The Saudis maintain correct ties with Zardari but treat him with some reserve because they regard him as half-Shiite. Sharif vehemently opposes American missile strikes against terrorist havens in Waziristan and resents the blind eye turned by the president. But Washington cannot say a word against Sharif without putting Saudi backs up and sacrificing Riyadh’s services as its go-between with Taliban. By unloading the ticking bomb of the balancing act between Zardari and Sharif onto Saudi shoulders, the United States is free to develop the negotiating track with the Taliban.
The main trouble with Riyadh’s diplomatic efforts, according to a diplomatic source in the Gulf, is that the Saudis often weary of their mission halfway through and let it go by the board without informing their principals – with disastrous consequences.
Some experts in Obama’s foreign policy transition team are offering to mediate a Pakistan-Indian settlement over Kashmir, which they advise him is of the highest priority above than of broaching talks with Taliban. As long as the Kashmir dispute is alive, they say, it will be available as a Taliban-al Qaeda war field and an address for their supporters in the Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) to send reinforcements and aid.
Obama advisers offer to broke a Kashmir peace
The answer to that is that America is running out of time for a settlement of the Afghanistan war and the stabilization of Pakistan. The incoming president will have no more than the six winter months to determine his course. By April 2009, by which time the mountain snows start thawing, US leaders and commanders must have a coherent plan of campaign ready – else the situation will continue to deteriorate.
Some of Obama’s advisers are putting Tehran forward as broker for a settlement in Afghanistan as part of a comprehensive package of understandings, in the same way that George W. Bush used Tehran to help pacify Iraq.
The two arguments against Iran as mediator are –
1. The current administration trusted its deal with Iran until it emerged that the Iranians used it to win a free hand for undermining American influence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. Washington discontinued the partnership at the end of 2007. If Obama opts for working with Tehran in Afghanistan, he may wind up finding the Iranians cheating again.
2. The Afghanistan situation differs from Iraq on religious grounds.
Shiite Tehran detests the Taliban and al Qaeda as radical Wahhabi Sunnis. This week, the prominent Qom ayatollah Mokarem Shirazi wrote in the Qom religious seminaries Web site that the Wahhabis are more dangerous to Islam than any other force.
The Taliban and al Qaeda, for their part, regard the Iranians as Shiite infidels and enemies of the true Islam.
Finally, Obama will find on his desk when he enters the Oval Office an offer by the Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdogan to act as Washington’s primary facilitator with Tehran, the role he has performed for the Israeli-Syrian track.