With their strike Monday at the heart of Kabul – which Afghan security sources say was planned, equipped and controlled from Pakistan – the Taliban have delivered an emphatic response to embattled President Hamid Karzai’s pleas that his enemies lay down their arms in return for amnesty.
It’s not compromise but victory the Taliban taste now. (See Update below).
Privately, U.S. and NATO leaders are seeking a way to adapt to that reality, as shockwaves from Monday’s attack reach far beyond the scarred precincts of the Western-backed Kabul regime.
In Washington D.C., the attack gives new urgency to arguments advanced by key aides to President Barack Obama, notably chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, that American overtures to reconcile the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership should be intensified – guided by an acceptance that the Afghan government must eventually throw open the gates of Kabul in some form of power sharing arrangement with its opponents.
“The momentum is building towards reconciling at any cost,” reports one well-placed observer, who has witnessed a shift in sentiment in the U.S. capital in recent weeks.
“More of the president’s advisers are telling him that it’s vital, by this summer if possible, to show Americans that their troops really will start coming home in 2011.
“In London next week, there’ll be a lot of talk about transitioning to the Afghans. The current government will be the assumed beneficiary, but in truth it’ll be other groups of Afghan leaders that stand to gain the most. That’s the Taliban, and the rest of the opposition groups operating from Pakistan.”
Indeed the London conference on Afghanistan convening January 28th will see a chastened, much maligned Hamid Karzai in the hot seat.
“If he’s not looking over his shoulder for (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar, he should be,” a London-bound Western diplomat tells Skyreporter.
“Karzai’s been nothing but belligerent towards his international supporters since last year’s election, and frankly we’re fed up to the teeth with his lack of action on corruption and bad governance.”
“If Obama looks for alternatives, including a back door exit strategy, Karzai can’t be surprised.”
Such sentiments would have been unthinkable just one year ago. Despite the regime’s abundant shortcomings, the Afghan Taliban were viewed as an intractable foe whose alliance with al Qaeda precluded any notion of power sharing.
But the sheer exasperation of U.S. and NATO leaders, and their unwillingness to take effective counter-measures against the Taliban’s command and control networks in Pakistan, leave few if any viable options.
“It’s a disgrace,” says the Washington observer, who has long advocated the interests of the Afghan people, as opposed to Afghanistan’s war-profiteering elite, within the D.C. power structure.
“It’s a sell out, both of the Afghans and our original objective of securing the region from terrorists.
"The willpower to reverse all the losses of the Bush years is just not there. We’re soft on corruption, and negligent on Pakistan. Game over.”
Certainly U.S. officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates will continue describing the Taliban as irreconcilable.
But with no new strategy to hurt the Taliban’s leadership where they live and work, reconciling with the devil is not only on the cards. It’s in the works.
Update (Jan. 21): In a stunning rebuke of U.S. concerns over the Taliban’s cross-border terrorism, Pakistan’s military chiefs will tell Defense Secretary Robert Gates today that there is no question of their army taking action against the militants’ bases in Pakistan.
“We are not going to conduct any major new operations against the militants over the next 12 months,” Major General Athar Abbas told the BBC in Islamabad.
Abbas is head of public relations for the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence branch, the ISI, which provides sanctuary and material support for Mullah Omar’s rump Taliban leadership shura based in Quetta, Pakistan, and to other opposition groups operating from bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Abbas continued: "The Pakistan army is overstretched and it is not in a position to open any new fronts”.
Ever the gamesman, Abbas' use of the word 'fronts' refers to past actions against the Army's domestic Pakistani Taliban targets. The Pakistan military has never moved against an Afghan Taliban sanctuary.
The remarks are an unambiguous snub to Gates, who arrived in Islamabad Thursday to press the West’s key “ally” for help in blunting cross-border terrorism.
Only yesterday Gates spoke of a “trust-deficit” between the U.S. and Pakistan, and later told reporters: "You can't ignore one part of this cancer and pretend that it won't have some impact closer to home."
Incredibly, Gates confirmed late Thursday that far from protesting the Pakistan military’s intransigence, Washington is rewarding the Army with more arms – including advanced drone aircraft.
That the ISI’s Taliban protegés will almost certainly one day turn the weapons on America’s Afghan allies, if not U.S. troops, seems beyond the Defense Secretary’s comprehension.
And so the Obama administration follows in the debris field of its predecessors: welcome to a whole new decade of blowback in Southwest Asia.