One factor that bedevils NATO's Afghanistan mission more than any other is neighbouring Pakistan. It has a sizeable population, a heavily-armed military, even nuclear weapons. It is politically unstable and its military and security services are heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalism. The central government has been unable to control Pakistan's border regions with Afghanistan where Pashtuns and Baluchs feed the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Although George Bush has named Perves Musharraf a key ally in the Global War Without End on Terror, Musharraf himself isn't safe even in his own capital.
Pakistan is invested heavily in Afghan politics. It has long favoured the Taliban, if only as a means of ensuring its own influence in Afghanistan especially over Indian overtures. Pakistani forces seem much more willing to go after al-Qaeda agents than Taliban leaders.
NATO is already on the defensive in southern Afghanistan. It doesn't have nearly enough troops to do more than try to keep the Taliban at bay in selected parts of the southern provinces. It can't begin to deploy the size of force that would be needed to seal off the Afghan/Pakistan border, the Taliban lifeline. Any notion of pre-emptive strikes against insurgent strongholds within Pakistan is out of the question.
It isn't particularly surprising then to read Ahmen Rashid's report from Islamabad in today's Sidney Morning Herald claiming that Pakistan's foreign minister has urged his NATO counterparts to recognize reality and negotiate with the Taliban:
"SENIOR Pakistani officials are urging NATO countries to accept the Taliban and work towards a new coalition government in Kabul that might exclude the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.
"Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, has said in private briefings to foreign ministers of some NATO member states that the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and NATO is bound to fail. He has advised against sending more troops.
"Western ministers have been stunned. 'Kasuri is basically asking NATO to surrender and to negotiate with the Taliban,' said one Western official who met the minister recently.
It is inconceivable that NATO has reached the point where its leaders would entertain Kasuri's suggestion. One person to whom the idea isn't that outlandish - Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. He's been sending diplomatic peace overtures to the Taliban for quite a long time. Of course, Karzai is hardly independent of Washington as he would need to be to cut a deal with the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine any American government, Democratic or Republican, countenancing an Afghan coalition government that incorporated the Taliban.
Kasuri's comments, however, may be seen as a wake-up call by NATO. If the Pakistanis genuinely perceive the Taliban to be winning, we'd better not count on this supposed ally to go beyond hedging its bets. What our generals have identified as the key to winning in Afghanistan - Pakistan itself - may already be lost to us.