Speaking on Thursday Feb. 2, ahead of a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted US and allied troops in Afghanistan would end their combat role by the end of 2013 and so bring to a close their decade-long war engagement.
“Hopefully by the mid to latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist, role” Panetta said.
In so saying, the US Defense Secretary lopped a whole year off the American-led war that was launched as a War on Terror in the wake of al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on the United States. Panetta partly backtracked on this statement when he encountered the surprised dismay on the faces of his NATO colleagues upon hearing this startling news without prior warning
President Barack Obama had pledged to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan for good in 2014.
Panetta shortened the timeline for closure in response to a lot of pressure. France is urging NATO to end its Afghanistan mission twelve months early – that is by the end of next year.
Wednesday, Feb. 1, The Times of London ran a "highly classified" leaked report put together last month for top NATO officers at Bargam air base near Kabul. The report revealed that the Taliban was set to retake control of Afghanistan when NATO-led forces withdrew.
Taliban peace talks mix-up
This raised the specter of the costly Afghan war ending in a major Western failure and US defeat. It was feared that Taliban hardliners would be encouraged to stay away from peace talks with the Americans and the Karzai government from a position of strength.
Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force ISAF), confirmed the existence of the document. But he denied it was a strategic analysis and insisted it was no more than a compilation of views collected from Taliban detainees.
His explanation was drowned out by the various rival channels of negotiating start-ups springing up with the Taliban. Although the Doha office opened by the Taliban is presented in the West as the main conduit, set up in contacts between Taliban emissaries and representatives of Germany and the US, there is no confirmation that these parties have got down to agreeing on how and when to launch peace talks.
Qatari diplomatic sources close to the Taliban office say that, so far, all that has happened is "an exchange of ideas," which has not progressed to the next stage.
A Taliban statement on Feb. 1, confirmed that negotiations with the US and its allies were not yet at hand. "First, there must be confidence-building, which has not yet begun."
Enter Saudi Arabia carrying Pakistan
The dominant theme there, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources, is that the Afghan side feels itself in a strong enough position to dictate terms for the orderly restoration of its rule in Kabul.
In Washington, administration officials briefed eight Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), Tuesday, Jan. 31, on a prisoner swap entailing the release of five Taliban prisoners held for most of the war in Guantanamo.
At a Congressional hearing that day, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper did not deny that the administration was considering the prisoner transfer in negotiations with the Taliban. "This proposed so-called trade has actually not been decided yet," he said. "There's continued consultation with the Congress. In almost every case where we've had hostilities… at some point in time there are negotiations. I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," he said.
Clapper's remarks were spurred by an unforeseen event: As the Taliban opened its Qatar office, the Saudis suddenly came out with information about another negotiating track – this one between the Taliban and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, without American involvement. But then, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed media reports about a forthcoming meeting in the oil kingdom as "not true."
Enter Pakistan carrying Al Qaeda
This episode brought a further complicating strand into the cat's cradle of intersecting lines of negotiation: According to Qatari sources, Pakistan persuaded the Saudis to step forward to circumvent the Qatari office which it views as an American bid to push Pakistan and President Karzai off the board and away from the peace talks with the Taliban.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, Pakistan struck again: Hafiz Muahmmad Saeed, head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawah-JuD, the radical organization held accountable for the 2008 terrorist outrage against the Indian city of Mumbai, appeared at a news conference in Karachi. He indicated he would stand in the coming elections for a seat either in the Punjab Assembly or the National Assembly, Pakistan's lower house of Parliament.
His organization is considered a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe, one of Al Qaeda's operational arms. However, Saeed insisted that his JuD was a political party and any queries about its validity were based on a "misconception."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror experts note that Lashkar-e-Taiba operates under the direct command of acting Al Qaida chief operations officer, the notorious Saif al-Adel.
By letting the JuD masquerade as a political party and run for election, Pakistan is warning Washington that if Taliban is allowed to return to power in Kabul without a by-your-leave from Islamabad, an Al Qaeda organization would be permitted to seek office in Pakistan and pose a threat to Taliban rule in Kabul.