Whatever one's judgment of sartorially immaculate crypto-American puppet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he's not a fool.
So now the word is out, via his spokesman Aimal Fazi, that Karzai envoys have been negotiating in Dubai with the Afghan Taliban. And Karzai, on top of it, is boldly encouraging Washington to join the party. Otherwise, he won't sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) -- the key plot line in the Hindu Kush's favorite geopolitical soap opera for over a year now.
Let's try to break this mess down succinctly.
On one side we have the Obama administration dying to exit Afghanistan, but with the Pentagon adamant on keeping boots on the ground and at least some well-located pearls in its vast Empire of Bases.
On the other we have a US puppet who needs to think about his future after whatever form the American exit takes; otherwise the Taliban may grill him like a live kebab.
And in the middle, just merrily watching the proceedings, we have the Afghan Taliban, which will inevitably make a killing -- literally and otherwise -- whichever way the Hindu Kush winds blow.
This running comedy includes plot twists worthy of the TV show Homeland. The Obama administration even tried to negotiate with the Taliban in Qatar; by June last year, failure was evident. At the time, Karzai angrily denounced it.
Now it's his turn -- complete with his added American enticement. Plus the hugely popular demand that the Obama administration abandon its modus operandi of repeatedly targeting Afghan villages in the drone war -- with loads of "collateral damage."
One may imagine the roars of laughter of Taliban supremo Mullah Omar at his secret refuge, possibly in Quetta -- so secret that the NSA has never intercepted anything in or out of it.
Omar and his mullahs may -- or may not -- hold the pleasure of playing Karzai like a violin, lots of sophisticated Pashtun subterfuge included. Still, any way they play, they can't lose. They know that as much as Karzai badly needs to buy some protection, Mob-style, he may also insert them -- in a totally legit way -- inside the Afghan political scene. What's not to like?
The Obama administration, as usual, is puzzled. The official spin -- playing like a scratched CD -- is about "fighting Al-Qaeda." It's not. Al-Qaeda has been non-existent in Afghanistan for years. The fight is against the Taliban. Now, not only we're sort of kicking ourselves out, but we also need to talk to them?
The point is everybody needs a deal with everybody else. Karzai well knows he needs to cut a deal with the Taliban; otherwise his successor, to be chosen in next April's elections, will be crushed by them.
Karzai also knows that crucial strategic/intelligence sectors in Pakistan support the Afghan Taliban, even as the Obama administration has advertised a current strategic dialog with Pakistan. Any progress with that with drones in and out of Afghanistan continuing to strike the tribal areas in Pakistan is an absolute no-no.
The Obama administration now even faces the possibility of a double defeat; no SOFA in Afghanistan -- because Karzai or his successor won't sign it -- implying no US troops whatsoever staying beyond the end of 2014; and on top of it being forced to talk to the Taliban.
The privileged spectators of this whole mess are regional powers Russia, China, Iran and India. They are also well aware that things will never get better in Islamabad with the Americans still ensconced in their bases in Afghanistan.
What they certainly don't want -- except Delhi -- is any remaining US/NATO deployment in Afghanistan. Especially because they know the next step would be the Obama administration -- not to mention a possible, future, hawkish Hillary Clinton administration -- deploying the US missile defense system in the Hindu Kush, a cataclysmic move in the New Great Game in Eurasia if there ever was one.
So all's still at play in Afghanistan -- depending on the results of the April elections. The Taliban, as a fighting force, remains powerful, but as an electoral force it won't be going anywhere. Karzai's game implies a big play for some sort of ceremonial role after the supposed American drawdown -- as in politically legitimizing the Taliban. Still the Taliban holds the privilege of choosing either to be led down this road, or do it in its own hardcore way.Remember that pipeline?
Now compare the process in Afghanistan with the one across the border, where the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are considering talking with the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (the offer was Sharif's).