The representatives of 70 governments, including Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who convened in London to decide on the future of Afghanistan, had big plans for persuading at least parts of the Taliban to lay down arms.
Their only trouble was that they were not speaking from a position of strength. The logic behind their plans was simply this: We can't beat them in the field, so let's make them an offer they can't refuse of talks for the Taliban's reintegration in government.
Taliban lost no time in dismissing the London conference as a "propaganda ploy."
This was entirely predictable, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources – first, because they have already constructed their own mini-governments in several Afghan provinces and second, because they want no part in the admittedly corrupt administration headed by the US-propped Karzai, some of whose ministers parliament refuses to endorse.
In contrast with the Bush administration, whose objective was to destroy Saddam Hussein's machinery of government in Baghdad, President Barack Obama seven years later says his goal is not to defeat the Taliban but only to weaken it so that Afghanistan ceases to be a base of terror and the insurgents are forced to consider a power-sharing deal in Kabul.
So who is weak and who strong?
To resist US military efforts to sap its strength, the Taliban ha? gone on the offensive – although the winter months are customarily a time for its fighters to regroup and rest. It is fighting ferociously to prove that Taliban's leaders do not need invitations from the Americans or NATO – and certainly not Karzai – to join Afghanistan's political machinery. They are already there.
Taliban's parallel government: a Sharia-ruled regime
In Wardak Province, just 50 kilometers from the Afghan capital of Kabul and athwart the main Kabul-Kandahar highway, Taliban has installed a parallel government ruled by Sharia law.
It consists of provincial governors, police chiefs, regional officials and judges whose powers go a lot further than the central government's writ. They collect taxes, operate a parallel judicial system of clerics, who adjudicate in family disputes, controversies over land and other property and try murderers.
They sentence convicted felons to flagellation, amputations of hands or executions. The death penalty is handed down frequently because prison space is short.
The Taliban government also recruits fighters, trains them and deploys them against Afghan and NATO forces.
This parallel governing apparatus is expanding at the expense of the Karzai government, whose control of territory is correspondingly shrinking.
Not surprisingly, therefore, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set the leitmotif for the London conference Friday, January 22, when he told Pakistani reporters in Islamabad: “The United States recognizes that the Taliban are now part of the political fabric of Afghanistan, but they must be prepared to play a legitimate role before they can reconcile with the Afghan government.”
In an interview with the Financial Times published Monday Jan. 25 Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, followed Gates by saying that high-level political negotiations with Taliban leaders could help bring an end to the conflict.
Pakistan vetoes US request for new front
When asked if senior Taliban leaders might eventually become government members in Kabul, McChrystal said “I think that anybody who dedicates themselves to the future and not the past, and anybody whose future is focused on the right kinds of things for Afghanistan,” might participate in government.
Wednesday, January 27, the day before the London conference, American media ran a leak from a briefing by the top U.S. intelligence official in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn:
The General warns that the "situation is serious," and stressed that his assessment is that the Taliban's "organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding" and the group is capable of much greater frequency of attacks and varied locations of attacks.
US military and political leaders were clearly offering the Taliban, or at least leaders seen as "more moderate," a truce during which talks would be held for their integration in central government.
According to our Taliban experts, this offer too will be spurned – and for a third reason: The Afghan insurgents led by Mullah Omar already enjoy the benefits of a truce with the Pakistani army, helped inadvertently by the Americans themselves.
Last week, when the US defense secretary arrived in Islamabad to demand that the Pakistani military open a new front against Taliban and al Qaeda in North Waziristan, he was publicly snubbed by his hosts.
Unexpected help for Taliban from… Islamabad
Pakistani military spokesmen announced that their armed forces were "overstretched" and would not be ready for any further military action for another six to twelve months.
This amounted to a unilateral Pakistani ceasefire against the Taliban and a painful setback for President Obama's surge policy before even the first extra boots hit the ground.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources note the symmetry between Islamabad's veto and Turkey's refusal to let US forces transit its territory for opening a northern front against Saddam Hussein in 2003
It means that the Taliban of Afghanistan can now rest assured that its rear bases in the lawless tribal lands of the northwestern Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which feed its warfronts with personnel and logistic support, are safe from military attack.
The insurgent leaders will no doubt capitalize on this advantage to intensify their pressure on US-led international forces well before the first US surge troops land in the summer. They will fight to compel the Americans to follow Islamabad in declaring a unilateral truce in hostilities.
The Taliban will then demand to be acknowledged as the winning side in the war and respected as such in future political negotiations. Their leaders will not be satisfied with a few seats in the Karzai government but demand the whole pie. Until then, the war will go on.