Overshadowed by the dramatic events in the Arab world, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be approaching a dangerous turning-point. Should the US and its Nato allies continue making war on the Taliban or should they urgently seek a global political solution?
As if still hoping for better news from the battlefield, western leaders — US President Barack Obama first among them — seem reluctant to face up to the need for a clear decision one way or the other. Washington's strategy is to keep up the military pressure on the insurgents — and attempt to disrupt and destroy its leadership by air strikes on Taliban safe havens across the border in North Waziristan — while beginning a drawdown of US troops this summer.
The hope is that by 2014 the situation will be sufficiently stable for US combat troops to leave after progressively handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces. But this may not be a realistic objective.
There are at present 143,000 Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, of which 98,000 are American. Poland is to withdraw all its 2,600 troops this year, while Germany will also start to withdraw its 4,700-strong contingent this year. Britain has said it will withdraw its 9,000 troops by 2015.
Last week, however, a report by the House of Commons foreign affairs committee sharply criticised the British government's handling of the war. The campaign was not succeeding, the report said, and lacked a clear national security purpose. Arbitrary deadlines and further military operations were setting back the prospect of a peace deal, which the report described as ‘the best remaining hope' of achieving ‘an honourable exit from Afghanistan'.
The decision facing western leaders is whether to continue with the current strategy of military attacks and leisurely withdrawals or, on the contrary, to make a strong and sustained push for negotiations with the Taliban. Meanwhile, spring is coming to the Afghan mountains and with it the probability of an upsurge of lethal Taliban hit-and-run operations.
In recent months, the insurgents have given ground in the face of large-scale Nato-led assaults in Helmand Province and in and around Kandahar. But they continue their widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IED), which take a dreadful toll of Nato troops, blowing off limbs and sharply constraining movement. At the same time, rather than face Nato troops in battle, the insurgents have also increasingly resorted to suicide bombings and the assassination of those tribal leaders who dare consort with foreign forces.
Public opinion among America's Nato allies — and indeed in the US itself — is impatient and despondent. Security in both Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be deteriorating. The costly ten-year war is far from won, and could well be lost, despite the attempt by General David Petraeus, the military commander in Afghanistan, to put a brave face on what is a grim situation.
A new and hopeful development is that Turkey seems ready to play a mediating role in the conflict. A spokesman for Afghanistan's 70-man peace council, which President Hamid Karzai set up last year, has been reported as saying that Turkey was ready to facilitate talks between the warring parties by providing the Taliban with a representative office — that is to say an ‘address' on Turkish soil — where contacts and talks with the Afghan Government could eventually take place. But any such initiative might first require a pause in military operations, perhaps even an informal ceasefire.
So far, the US has not given public support to the Turkish suggestion. The precedents are not encouraging. Washington did not welcome some of Turkey's earlier mediation efforts, such as its attempt, with Brazil, to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear activities or its bid to make peace between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian rival factions.
Profoundly destabilised by the Afghan war, neighbouring Pakistan seems to be trembling on the edge of an abyss, which could sweep away President Asif Ali Zardari and his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. Pakistani-Indian rivalry lies at the heart of the problem. Afraid of losing ground to India in Afghanistan, Pakistan feels the need to maintain contact with insurgent Islamist groups — the very groups that most bitterly oppose the US presence and which have recently turned their guns on Pakistan itself.
Ferocious anti-Americanism and a rise of extreme militancy are today the most striking features of both the Pakistani and the Afghan scene. In both countries the killing of civilians by Nato air strikes has aroused great rage and a thirst for revenge.
In Pakistan, drone attacks continue to inflame the local population. Among the many indications of the fierce anti-American mood is the insistence that there can be no diplomatic immunity for Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor accused of killing of two Pakistanis. Opinion is clamouring for him to hang.
Other alarm signals of Pakistan's growing intolerance were the murder last January of Salman Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab, and this month of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, who was federal minister for minorities. Both men appear to have been murdered because they favoured amending the 1986 blasphemy laws. Unwilling to confront public opinion, the Pakistan Government's response to the killings was tepid in the extreme.
Another recent pointer to anti-Americanism was the gunning down at Frankfurt airport on March 2 of two American airmen and the serious wounding of two others by a 21-year old Muslim Kosovar. Three of the four victims were members of a security team en route from Britain to Afghanistan.
Casualties, both direct and indirect, of the Afghan war continue to pile up. It is long past time for the US and its Nato allies to make every attempt to conclude a negotiated settlement resulting in a full and speedy withdrawal of foreign forces.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan deserve a break from lethal western military meddling, allegedly in the interest of illusory strategic interests.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.