Barak Obama's revised Afghan War strategy has begun to go into effect just one year and 10 months after the country staged a presidential election marred by charges of widespread fraud. Saturday, September 18, Afghan voters will choose the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga, the country's lower house of parliament.
These elections are not about to change the political reality in Kabul or affect the war sectors, which now encompass 30 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
All that can change, and only for the worse, is the strengthening of the ordinary Afghani's belief, whether in towns or villages, that nothing will improve in the way the regime of President Hamid Karzai governs the country. As it is, his government departments scarcely function outside Kabul and other central cities – and even there, they do very little.
Nevertheless, Saturday's election has two points of interest:
1. It will show how far Taliban's threats are effective in deterring voters from turning out and casting their votes.
British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, remarked bitterly on Thursday, September 16: "I am not, and never have been from my time in Afghanistan, optimistic. The reality is that the insurgency will have a go on election-day. I just hope they don't do as well as they did last year."
2. It will show the size of the parliamentary faction representing secret Taliban recruits.
Poll results are expected to show the truth of the rumors going around Washington, Kabul and Riyadh this week that the Taliban secretly recruited several dozen candidates – some sources say more than 100 of the nearly 2,500 running for election – to be the nucleus of a pro-Taliban faction taking seats in the lower house after the election.
This faction, so said the rumors, will be the jumping-off base for Taliban's entry into mainstream politics in Kabul and energize the secret negotiations going forward between Taliban and the Americans at various venues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on a political solution for ending the war.
Partitioning Afghanistan between a US-dominated North and Taliban-ruled South
These rumors were fed by certain developments, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, where the Taliban maintains unofficial representatives. It is claimed now that Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban chief, has developed a more positive and flexible attitude towards exchanges with the Americans than in the past. In return, the Obama administration is said to be willing to weigh releasing some 60 Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners held at the US Guantanamo Bay detention facility as a token of good will.
A Persian Gulf source close to the Saudi royal family, which is intensely involved in diplomacy for ending the Afghan war, claimed recently that the secret US-Taliban talks in Riyadh, Qatar and Dubai have advanced so far that the two parties are already haggling over America's demand to maintain a military presence in northern Afghanistan while agreeing to let the Taliban control the south.
The outcome of these talks – which would end the war by partitioning Afghanistan between the North and the South – may well precede the date of the US army's departure from Afghanistan, says the source. This formula would prevent either side from claiming victory while saving both from conceding defeat.
Saudis willing to take in Al Qaeda's Pakistan and Afghan operatives
The Persian Gulf source maintained that Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's five-day visit to Saudi Arabia (Aug. 28-Sept. 1) dealt exclusively with aspects of these secret negotiations. The director of Pakistani military intelligence – ISI, Lieut. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, then traveled to Washington with a proposal: Saudi Arabia would take in all the top Al Qaida leadership led by Osama bin Laden and so remove the last remaining stumbling block in the negotiations, namely, how to dispose of Al Qaida's operatives and remove them from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar refuses to be seen as abandoning or, worse, betraying his close allies and delivering them to the Americans. And President Obama is not prepared to be seen surrendering to the Taliban and letting Al Qaida continue to shelter under its rule. It was this very point that defeated the secret negotiations President George W. Bush's administration held with the Taliban right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their failure resulted in the US invasion of Afghanistan.
For now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources discount reports claiming the US-Taliban talks are near a resolution as over-optimistic. Secret contacts have been going on for nine years in one form or another but a breakthrough still lies ahead.
Because the light at the end of the tunnel remains out of sight, morale among the commanders, officers and troops fighting in Afghanistan is not very high.
US General David Petraeus, commander of NATO forces, said recently that watching for progress in the fight against the Taliban was like watching grass grow.
US surge and Taliban counter-surge
Even though the last units of the 30,000-troop surge arrive in Afghanistan this week and next, no one expects much to change on the battlefield, for two main reasons:
First, the Taliban preempted the American surge with a surge of its own with clear-cut, comprehensive objectives. While US forces are being concentrated in the South, mostly around Kandahar (where on Wednesday, September 15 they launched an attack on a Taliban stronghold called "The Green Zone" – a fertile belt of vegetation crawling with insurgents), the Taliban have withdrawn from there and moved their forces to the northern, western and eastern regions, opening new warfronts at previously dormant points.
This tactic is familiar; it has been pursued by Taliban whenever US, British, Canadian or Pakistani forces went on the offensive.
It had been the hope of President Obama and General Petraeus that the arrival of the surge reinforcements would bring defectors to escape from Mullah Omar's army and come over to US field commanders. But this has not happened. Any local commander, village or clan chief preparing to go over has been summarily executed with his entire family by Taliban or Al Qaeda.
Phased British exit is a serious blow
Second, the US military command is being forced to redeploy the 30,000 new troops from the main war arenas planned for them (Helmand, Kandahar) and split them into smaller units tasked with halting the Taliban's advance in far-flung parts of northern and western Afghanistan.
The US command is also confronted with the slow evaporation of the British force in Afghanistan as an effective fighting force, although it managed to cope with the departure of the Dutch and Canadian contingents.
In mid-August, the new UK Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the 10,000 British troops stationed in Helmand to withdraw from combat operations. In the last week, they were told to start pulling back from the major war arena they held in Sanjin because the UK treasury can no longer maintain a force of this size in Afghanistan or provide it with the necessary weapons and equipment.
Gen. Petraeus, confronted with the start of a vacuum, was forced to send newly-arrived surge units to take the place of the British units.
Obama's original strategy was to deploy these extra units to vitiate the Taliban until they had no option but to enter into negotiations out of weakness. The opposite has happened. As NATO strength diminished, the Taliban's has expanded.
This alters the way in which the Afghanistan War may end. The Taliban has no real incentive to conduct serious negotiations with Washington and certainly not with President Karzai.