Members of the Bush administration and the CENTCOM chief, former commander of the Iraq front, Gen. David Petraeus, were ahead of themselves when they came up with a peace move for the Afghan-Pakistan conflict.
Their experience in Iraq should have taught them that the opposition never sits down and talks until it is cowed by a stronger enemy. For four years, American military leaders in Iraq tried to draw Sunni insurgent leaders into negotiating a settlement – whether directly or through Saudi and Jordanian brokers. This was a futile exercise for as long as the military balance favored the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda. It was only when the balance tilted toward the American army at the beginning of 2007 – and al Qaeda blundered fatally by turning its bombs against Sunni tribal leaders – that the latter were willing to swing round and work with the American army in the Awakening Councils.
These pre-conditions are nowhere near present for the foreseeable future in Afghanistan or Pakistan, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report.
At least one of the key fundamentals is missing. The Pashtun tribes giving al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in their lands on the Pakistan-Afghan border in no way resemble the Sunni tribal leaders of the Anbar Province in western Iraq. They are rolling in funds from trafficking in dope, weapons, new cars and fighters and chockablock with arms. Their weaponry and communications equipment are often superior to those of the Pakistani army or even the British and other NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, excepting only US troops.
Against NATO’s chronic shortage of fighting men, the hostile Pashtun tribes can call on the Taliban or al Qaeda at any given moment for hundreds or even thousands of new combatants to be trained.
Two-pronged US-Pakistani strategy fell flat
In a coordinated US-Pakistan strategy for building up military pressure on the tribal chiefs and Taliban leaders, Islamabad two months ago launched a redoubled offensive on Taliban and its supporters in the Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, while the US launched commando raids and missile strikes from pilotless drones in South Waziristan.
Since August, Bajaur, a district of farming valleys and craggy mountains, has been the front line of Pakistan's fight against militants. The Taliban refused to be dislodged, even after losing an estimated 1,000 men, loath to lose Bajaur’s good road connections to Islamabad and the rest of the country which Waziristan lacks.
US attacks in the Kunar region, one of the Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, located in the northeast, aimed at blocking off Taliban escape routes from neighboring Bajaur. Pashtuns make up the vast majority of this tiny, sparsely inhabited province. Its impenetrable terrain and caves have made it a favorite refuge for insurgents. American troops call Kunar “Enemy Central.”
The two-pronged strategy did not work.
In the last two weeks, the Taliban have stood fast, reinforced by an intake of heavily armed combatants into the embattled regions. The conflict in Bajaur intensified during the month of Ramadan and began spilling over into the Swat Valley, threatening other parts of Pakistan.
The Americans, like others before them, were unable to subdue the rugged Pashtuns of Kunar, suffering as they do from NATO’s endemic troop shortage.
Taliban turns down a backdoor peace effort
Notwithstanding this military deadlock, Washington embarked on a backdoor effort through go-betweens, most of them heads of local militias allied with Taliban, to initiate negotiations between Taliban leaders and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British premier Gordon Brown and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia joined the effort.
The plan had four parts:
1. The cessation of hostilities by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their leadership headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar would be allowed to return to Afghanistan and stay for the duration of the negotiations at a venue near Kabul. Especially imported Saudi troops would secure them with personal guarantees for their safety from the Saudi King, the British prime minister and Pakistan president Ali Asif Zardari.
2. Saudi general intelligence service director Prince Muqrin Abdel Aziz will act as senior mediator.
3. Mullah Omar would be at liberty to get up in mid-negotiation and return with his men in safety to his Pakistani tribal haven.
4. One option put forward was for a “small armistice,” limited to the Pakistani Taliban organization and the Islamabad government.
However, in the first half of last week, the spadework for these negotiations struck a hard rock: The Taliban’s utter refusal to cooperate.
Karzai keeps on trying
Nevertheless, Afghan president Hamid Karzai called a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 30 to reveal that he had asked the Saudi king to help engage the Taliban militia in peace talks. He said his envoys had made repeated trips to the kingdom and neighboring Pakistan to facilitate the negotiations.
“Since two years, I have been sending letters and messages to the Saudi Arabian king and requested him as a world Muslim leader to help us bring peace in Afghanistan,” said Karzai. “The preparations for negotiations are going on, on a daily basis… They have not started. We hope that it happens soon.”
The Afghan president’s dramatic disclosure did not resonate in the world media in the clamor of sinking global financial markets. Neither did the Taliban’s public rejection, mention of which was omitted in Karzai’s disclosure.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, said the Taliban communique, rejects false claims by the enemy about a peace process between Taliban and the “Kabul puppet administration of President Hamid Karzai,” which is sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain. Also denied were that “unprecedented talks” were under way, involving “a senior ex-Taliban member who is traveling between Kabul and alleged senior Taliban leadership bases in Pakistan.”
The communique ended with a vow to continue “our struggle until the departure of all foreign troops.”
It was signed: Dr. Talib, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan/Kabul.
Pakistani intelligence reshuffled for pro-US slant
So why did Karzai parade a peace initiative that had been knocked cold?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the thinking in Washington, London, Riyadh and Islamabad was that leaving it on the table might persuade some of the Pashtun leaders at some time in the future to pick it up and break with Mullah Omar for the sake of settling with Kabul and Islamabad.
Presidents Zardari and Karzai had worked with President Bush on the plan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, whose opening provided the two visitors with a pretext for traveling to New York.
According to the New York Times, the Pakistani president also conferred with the CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden.
In Islamabad, meanwhile, the Pakistan military replaced Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj as director-general of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency with Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who has worked well with the Americans and is known for his anti-Taliban views. The heads of the ISI’s external and internal security wings have also been replaced in a major reshuffle.
This flurry of activity in Islamabad after Zardari’s accession to the presidency last month will have put an end to any second thoughts Taliban leaders might have entertained about a peace deal. They are now more suspicious than ever before that the US administration and Pakistani president are in collusion to inveigle them into a deal for breaking up their alliance with al Qaeda.