Coll Discusses His 'New Yorker' Piece

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Robert Siegel speaks with New Yorker contributor and president of New America Foundation Steve Coll about his new article on Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. The article is titled "Looking for Mullah Omar."


When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammad Omar was the de facto head of state. He'd been a fighter in the war against the Soviet Union before that and he wore an unmistakable battle scar from that war, shrapnel claimed his right eye. Mullah Omar was the Taliban leader who, after 9/11, refused demands that he surrender Osama bin Laden. His regime was then ousted and he has been a hunted man ever since.

Steve Coll has written a penetrating profile of him for the current issue of The New Yorker. It's titled, "Looking For Mullah Omar: Will The United States Be Able To Negotiate With A Man It Has Hunted For A Decade?" Steve Coll, welcome back to the program.

STEVE COLL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar is widely believed to have fled to Pakistan. Does he enjoy the protection of the Pakistani Intelligence Services?

COLL: I think a lot of the Taliban leaders who report to him believe that he is effectively under house arrest in Pakistan and overseen by the ISI. That's part of what the reporting produced. And I don't think anybody knows for certain where he is, certainly not in the United States government. But it would make sense, given the long historical relationship that ISI has had with the Taliban leadership and the interest that they have now.

SIEGEL: Under house arrest, meaning he still has control over some Taliban fighters in Afghanistan or he's really no longer effective as a leader?

COLL: Well, he certainly is effective in the sense of being the moral leader and the political leader of the Taliban. It's striking that there's very little dissent about his authority within the Taliban movement. But the assessment is that his day to day control over fighters is loosening as a result of his exile and the fact that a new generation has grown up on the battlefield. And there's not really a lot of clarity about his own circumstances, so some of his followers aren't sure whether he is a free man and issuing orders on his own will.

SIEGEL: Is the United States today trying to kill Mullah Omar or trying to negotiate with him or both?

COLL: Both, I think, yeah. So far as anyone can tell, he remains subject to targeting under the laws of war and at the same time, the administration has been very busy over the last year trying to figure out how to establish a channel to credible interlocutors for him for the purpose of carrying out a negotiation that he might ultimately endorse. So right now, we are both fighting him and trying to talk to him.

SIEGEL: Well, from what you've been able to figure out about Mullah Omar, does he have a strong pragmatic streak that would permit him to say the days of our alliance with al-Qaida are long in the past, that's no longer germane and now it's time to cut the deal?

COLL: Well, there are some in the administration who believe that he does. I don't see the evidence for it in the historical record. In the historical record, he is a stubborn man who, under great pressure, sticks to his principles even past the point where his closest advisors believe it makes any sense to do so. So if he were to endorse a pragmatic arrangement in which the Taliban, for example, left the battlefield and entered peaceful politics, it would be a departure from the kinds of decisions he's made in the past.

Having said that, there are clearly people around him who are in such a mood. And one purpose of the negotiation might be to separate them from their leader or to persuade their leader to let them pursue the political path that they have identified.

SIEGEL: As for his future, you write that advocates of a settlement don't foresee Omar's return to major office and you quote a former Taliban official as saying, we could send him to Mecca and he could participate each year in the Hajj. I gather his return to power in Afghanistan would be, to say, unpopular with non-Taliban Afghans is a great understatement.

COLL: Yeah. I think it's implausible to imagine him returning to office. But, you know, his career is very interesting and it was interesting to be reminded that he was an accidental leader. He was essentially chosen without any political reputation or ambition precisely because he had no baggage, no profile. So it's not as if he has spent his whole life wishing to hold political office.

COLL: A return to quietude, to preaching, to teaching, to essentially dignity of exile and family might appeal to him if it involved a return to Afghanistan. I don't see Saudi Arabia as being particularly appealing to him.

SIEGEL: Recently, Vice President Biden said, in Afghanistan, the Taliban per se are not our enemies; meaning that going after al-Qaida initially. Do the Taliban - does he regard the United States, Mullah Omar, as their enemy, per se?

COLL: Well, he issues these two statements each year which are his sort of declaration about issues of that type. And he's very careful to say that the Taliban do not see themselves at war with Western countries, except in the circumstances where those countries invade Afghanistan.

But they're attempting to signal that they would not carry out or allow others to carry out international terrorist attacks of the sort that brought the NATO forces to Afghanistan in the first place, after September 11th. However, they've been unwilling to break with al-Qaida openly, despite American demands again and again that they do so.

SIEGEL: Steve Coll, thank you very much.

COLL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Steve Coll's article in The New Yorker is titled "Looking for Mullah Omar: Will The United States Be Able To Negotiate With The Man It Has Hunted For A Decade?"

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