Just a couple of years ago, Barack Obama appeared as the great hope for a modern America, one that was willing to admit its mistakes and to do some soul-searching as to whether they were fighting a just war in Iraq. It was that debate that perhaps led Obama to become president. He also promised hope for an economy on the brink of ruin. And his promise to bring back the troops from Iraq struck a chord with the voters eager for a change of policy from the Neo conservative-dominated US administration to a more liberal one willing to consider toning down America’s costly foreign wars that have, according to some estimates, crossed the three trillion dollar mark.
Despite that the wars in the far away lands have been showing no signs of a breakthrough – perhaps because of the extra baggage inherited from the Bush administration. No one could have expected Obama to perform miracles, but it appears that the American people are already showing signs of a change of heart.
With a Republican comeback likely in the mid-term polls, it is clear that Obama may not have a chance of winning the next elections. With that in mind, the outcome of the war in Afghanistan will be crucial to the Democrats to regain some of the lost support.
Everyone in this part of the world is already wondering if all these political changes will not make the Obama administration more hawkish with regard to its policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many, in fact, admit the war in Afghanistan is lost.
Almost 10 years since the conflict began, it is ordinary Afghans who have paid the dearest price and perhaps borne the brunt of the US strikes. True Osama and his key friends may have sought sanctuary in Afghanistan, but not a single Afghan was responsible for what happened on 9/11.
As the images of the tragedy unfolded in New York on that fateful day of September 11th, 2001 I was able to watch the event on the only television set in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where TVs were banned. I remember vividly Pakistan’s military attaché in Kabul telling me: “The Afghans were introverted fundamentalists. They had never taken part in acts of terror overseas, never hijacked a plane or took hostages in foreign capitals, but the American intervention in Afghanistan would one day risk … turning them into extroverted fundamentalists with a global agenda.”
For the past few weeks there has been an intense barrage of reports of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to try and find a political settlement to the Afghan problem as the deadline for the beginning of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is due to begin in 2011. There are also unconfirmed reports that several senior Taliban leaders – alleged to be under custody in Pakistan – were recently flown to Kabul for a specially arranged meeting with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The main agenda was how to divide the Taliban and drive a wedge in Taliban ranks in the Eastern Provinces, where the Americans are locked in some of the fiercest battles. The US believed the Haqqani Network has been active and playing a leading role in carrying out attacks against American forces in Afghanistan from across the border in Pakistan.
The Americans also believe that the network – now run by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of the legendary commander Jallaudin Haqqani – is harbouring the number two al-Qaeda leader, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri. The number one man, Osama bin Laden, was also reported to have taken residence in a plush house somewhere in the tribal regions. The reports angered Islamabad and there was a quick rebuttal from Pakistan which said that if the Americans knew so much why did they not take him out with their drones. After all, the drones were buzzing the skies over the tribal regions and striking targets on the ground on an almost daily basis.
Some of the top commanders who served in senior positions in the Taliban government, such as Maulvi Kabir, are said to have been involved in the alleged secret talks. There were earlier reports that Maulvi kabir was arrested by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which seldom confirms such reports.
However, according to our sources and experience, any venture by Maulvi Kabir to take on the Haqqani network – an integral component of the Taliban in Afghanistan led by the reclusive but determined Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban forces – would be tantamount to suicide.
Spreading the war
Some experts say that if any senior Taliban commander were to join Karzai against the wishes of Mullah Omar, it would not help solve the problem but would instead further divide Afghanistan. Already militias were being armed to take on the Taliban but if history was anything to go by, the same weapons could easily be pointing towards the Americans.
That underscores the importance and the wide following that the elder and now reportedly ailing Jallaludin Haqqani enjoys support in vast stretch of territory on both sides of the Pakistani and Afghan frontier. His loyalists are said to be much stronger in Afghanistan.
In the early days of the war I went into Pakistan’s tribal areas to report on the bombardment of Zawar Kalay, just across the border from North Waziristan after the American led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. I drove across the border the following year into Paktia in Afghanistan, and I was able to note that while the Americans ruled the skies over Afghanistan, the Taliban were already regrouping on the ground.
Since then they have come a long way. Far from being defeated, they have been able to spread the war from the West to the East and from the North to the south of the country . A far cry from the days when American intelligence reported they had surrounded Mullah Omar in the mountains of Afghanistan and were about to kill or capture him.