The Obama administration has accelerated talks with the Taliban in the hopes that the president will be able to report some progress on a settlement when he prepares to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July.
The Washington Post reports that a U.S. representative has attended at least three meetings with a senior Taliban official considered to have influence in the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura (the Taliban’s ruling council) and to have close ties to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.
U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden’s killing early this month could weaken the Taliban’s links to Al Qaeda and facilitate progress in the negotiations.
But it appears some Taliban leaders – and perhaps Pakistan’s ISI – haven’t gotten the memo.
While Bin Laden’s death has dealt the Taliban a severe psychological blow, it hasn’t stopped the Afghan Taliban’s military chief, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, from scrambling to mount a major spring offensive.
He and his men are operating with impunity in the high-desert landscape of southwestern Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and its hardscrabble capital city, Quetta. The Pakistani military has declared the province off-limits to U.S. Predator strikes, and the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) seems to be giving the Taliban a free hand. “They are coming and going in groups without end,” says a senior Quetta politician, an ethnic Pashtun (like the overwhelming majority of the Taliban). “Whatever the Taliban is doing is supervised and monitored by the [Pakistani] intelligence agencies.” Old hands among the insurgents say it reminds them of 1980s Peshawar, where anti-Soviet mujaheddin operated openly with the ISI’s blessing and backing.
Zakir – a former Guantanamo Bay detainee – has reportedly made it clear he wants 100% of the mujaheddin to be in Afghanistan for the spring assault, code-named Operation Badar. The offensive – planned in the weeks leading up to bin Laden’s death – is designed to field the full force of the Taliban in an attempt to reverse some of the battlefield gains the U.S. has made this year.
The attack has already begun, with hundreds of Taliban staging assaults in Nuristan province and Kandahar. More than 50 NATO troops were killed in April alone, making it the deadliest April since the war began. And Zakir promises that the worst is yet to come.