Until this week, the Taliban distanced itself from al Qaeda in one respect: It never openly threatened to carry its insurgency outside home ground in Afghanistan. In Pakistan too, Taliban spokesmen were careful never to publicly admit that its operations were guided by the drive for regime change in Islamabad. The Pakistan branch insisted that its ire was directed against fellow-Muslims who harmed Islam by collaborating with the United States in the war it waged on the true faith.
Monday, Nov. 17, for the first time in its history the Afghan Taliban threatened to strike in Paris unless French troops withdrew from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The threat was delivered by a Taliban military leader, identified as Mullah Faruq, over Al-Arabiya television. He said France could expect a response in its capital if French troops were not evacuated.
Backed by video footage, Faruq claimed the Taliban was responsible for the lethal ambush 40 miles south of Kabul which killed 10 French troops and wounded more than a dozen on Aug. 18. Some of the insurgents were shown wearing the uniforms of the dead French soldiers.
France has around 2,600 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan since president Nicolas Sarkozy decided to add 700 troops this year in response to Washington’s plea.
The Taliban is not known to have operational capabilities anywhere in West Europe, unless al Qaeda is willing to provide them on loan. Not since 2004 was a European nation threatened with retaliation for refusing to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.
Paris is rattled by Taliban’s warning
Spain was warned then and, after failing to comply with the demand, paid the price of the Madrid train bombings which left 191 dead and 1,757 people injured.
In the general election three days later, the Spanish voter ousted Jose Maria Aznar‘s conservative government which flouted al Qaeda’s demand and voted in the Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who brought the Spanish contingent home three months later.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources, the Taliban threat has seriously rattled the Elysee and French intelligence. They fear the peril is real and could be no more than weeks away.
Like in Madrid four years ago – and in the London transport attacks a year later – the assailants would not have to be imported; enough are home-grown. More than a million Muslims live in Paris and its suburbs.
The experts agree that all the preventive security measures in the world need luck to work and even the best are not 100 percent proof against a well-organized professionally-planned terrorist attack.
Taliban’s positions are growing more radical as more voices in and around the US president-elect Barack Obama’s transition team in Washington call for talks with Taliban to negotiate an end to the Afghan war and draw the insurgents away from their ties with al Qaeda.
Sunday, Nov. 16, president Hamid Karzai appealed to Taliban leaders to open immediate talks with his government. He promised Mullah Omar full guarantees for his personal safety in Kabul.
Karzai has offered Omar safety guarantees before, but this time we went as far as to announce that if the United States and the rest of the coalition fighting in Afghanistan refuse to back him up, they would have to fire him.
Taliban rejected the Afghan president’s olive branch on the spot and stuck to its guns that there could be no negotiations until every last foreign troop was gone from Afghan soil.
Washington will talk only from a position of strength
Monday, Nov. 17, Washington disassociated itself from Karzai’s initiative.
The White House has seen no positive response from Mullah Mohammad Omar after President Karzai’s offer of reconciliation, said a statement from spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
“We are not seeing any indication from Mullah Omar that he is ready to renounce violence, break all ties with al Qaeda and support the Afghan government and constitution. We are hopeful that reconcilable Taliban will lay down arms…” he said. “…sadly so far they continue to attack innocent civilians and coalition forces on a regular basis.”
The next day, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, suddenly announced that US troops in Iraq have begun practicing transfers to Afghanistan through Jordan and Turkey, to fight Taliban and al Qaeda (See HOT POINTS below).
But he then came out with this statement: “It’s my belief that you negotiate from a position of strength and right now the Taliban is doing pretty well,” he said. “I think that’s important as we discuss how we negotiate, and with whom we negotiate, that we do so from a position of strength.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources interpret the US military chief’s comment as a message to Taliban that, despite Karzai’s offer, Washington stands by its determination to pursue the war until reinforcements arrive from Iraq and tilt the balance “to a more favorable position for the Americans.” This process could take two or three years, so Mullen is really saying that negotiations with Taliban are not possible before then.
The controversy between Karzai, Mullen and Mullah Omar therefore will therefore be placed on the pile waiting for Barack Obama to reach his presidential in-tray.
The war’s spillover into Pakistan inevitable
Mullen concurs with DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s experts, who commented in previous issues that progress in the Afghanistan war, let alone victory, as perceived by Obama and his advisers, is predicated unavoidably on a spillover of US-led combat into Pakistan.
Wednesday, Nov. 19, in his Chairman’s Guidance for 1008-09, Adm. Mullen reported the Joint Staff was conducting an assessment of strategies for Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan and suggested Pakistan – not Iraq or Afghanistan – was now the focal point of the US war on Islamist extremists.
“In the near term” he said, “al Qaeda’s sanctuaries in Pakistan are the probable source of a terrorist attack on the US, as well as a significant source for Taliban insurgents fighting in Afghanistan.”
That same day, an American drone ventured for the first time outside the troubled Pakistan-Afghan border tribal lands of Waziristan and struck a house in Indi Khel, a village in the Bannu district, more than 100 kilometers from the Afghan border region.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts say that it was only a matter of time before the Americans felt they must strike deep inside Pakistan to reach the havens which the Taliban and al Qaeda have relocated inland beyond Waziristan.