Armitage's interlocutor Sept. 13, 2001, was Gen. Mahmoud Ahmad, the pro-Taliban chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. At the time of 9/11, ISI had 1,500 agents distributed throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was entirely dependent on the Pakistani lifeline.
At all times, Ahmad knew exactly where Osama bin Laden was located. His agents tracked his every move. ISI was also aware of the planning for 9/11. Gen. Ahmad was even accused of authorizing British-born Pakistani terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh to make a $100,000 transfer to Mohammed Atta, the operational chief of the 9/11 conspiracy, a charge that met vehement denials.
"Sheikh Omar," as he became known, was tried and sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002. But his ISI links spared him the gallows. There was little doubt some elements of ISI knew the outlines of the aerial plot against the U.S. and the evidence was turned over to the 9/11 Commission three days after its report had gone to press. It was never made public.
Gen. Ahmad arranged to be in Washington the week of al-Qaida's big terrorist attack -- presumably to take the Bush administration's pulse and gauge probable reactions. After seeing Armitage, he called his boss Musharraf in Islamabad and translated the either-you're-with-us-against-the-terrorists-or-against-us-with-the-terrorists threat to mean Bush planned to "bomb Pakistan back to the stone age" unless Musharraf complied with Washington's wishes.
Afghanistan was in Bush's gun sights before day's end on 9/11 and the U.S. wanted immediate access to Pakistan's air space. Also permission to use air bases for fighter-bombers and transport aircraft, and to support Special Forces. By distorting Armitage's warning, Ahmad was clearly hoping his chief would refuse to buckle to U.S. demands, as he did not believe the U.S. would invade another nuclear power whose population was anti-American and pro-Taliban.
ISI's Ahmad clearly miscalculated. Not only did Musharraf acquiesce to U.S. demands, but also dispatched Gen. Ahmad to Kandahar with orders to get Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, to cough up bin Laden. Ahmad's delegation was made up of six religious leaders and six ISI officers. His gambling instincts failed him yet again. He ignored Musharraf's orders and advised Mullah Omar to hang tough and refuse to surrender bin Laden. Ahmad reported back to Musharraf Oct. 6, 2001 that his mission had failed to persuade the Taliban. The U.S. invasion began next day, Oct. 7.
Five years later, Taliban guerrillas are on the comeback trail, using the tribal areas that straddle the mountain range, which demarcates an imaginary line drawn on a map in 1893 between then British India and Afghanistan. Under U.S. pressure, Musharraf agreed to deploy over 80,000 troops in Federally Administered Tribal Areas where they had been banned since independence in 1947.
After losing some 700 Pakistani troops killed and some 3,000 wounded, Musharraf's generals hadn't made a dent in tribal support for the Taliban and al-Qaida. With some 12 million people from the same tribes on both sides of the non-existent border, Taliban and locals are indistinguishable.
Thoroughly frustrated by U.S. pressure and Afghan president Hamid Karzai's accusations that Pakistan was giving aid and comfort to the Taliban enemy, Musharraf decided to cut a deal -- with the tribal leaders that despise him and protect the Taliban. Musharraf agreed to stand down the army. In return, the turbaned tribal chiefs agreed to keep Taliban fighters from staging cross-border raids up and down an unmarked line of jagged mountains and deep ravines. Pakistan also agreed to release several hundred prisoners, many with known links to al-Qaida.
Heated denials notwithstanding, Taliban and al-Qaida now have privileged sanctuaries in North and South Waziristan where they no longer have to duck when they see a Pakistani soldier. Several thousand foreign guerrillas -- mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Arabs who made it out of the Tora Bora battle in Dec. 2001, or stayed on after the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan in 1989, and married local girls -- are also home free.
A year ago, when this reporter was in Waziristan, a score of trainers in suicide and roadside bombing techniques had arrived from Iraq. Today, suicide attacks in Afghanistan are almost as commonplace as in Iraq. Earlier this month, a suicide bomber killed Hakim Taniwal, the governor of Afghanistan's Paktia province. The very next day, at Taniwal's funeral, another suicide bomber killed five and wounded 30 mourners.
NATO commanders in Afghanistan say Musharraf's deal with Waziristan's tribal elders cannot possibly make a difference in Taliban infiltrations from Pakistan. NATO Supreme Commander James L. Jones says, "let's be patient and give it 30, 60 or 90 days to see if the border gets better, worse, the same, or whatever." Winter snow shuts down mountain passes, which is when Taliban prepares its spring offensive from its Pakistani sanctuaries.
Presidents Bush, Musharraf and Karzai will dine together Wednesday evening at the White House. The Pakistani will echo Gen. Jones. Be patient. Winter is coming. He'll also tell Bush if he orders U.S. troops into Pak tribal areas to hunt bin Laden, sans Pak hunting license, extremists will score big.
Gen. Jones appealed to NATO members for an additional 2,500 troops to reinforce the 20,000 NATO and 20,000 U.S. troops now on the ground in Afghanistan. The Poles volunteered 1,000, but not before next February, and then not for duty in the southern provinces where the heaviest fighting is taking place. Even Serbia, the country NATO fought over Kosovo in 1999, was solicited. Belgrade volunteered five airport security and logistics officers. Britain, Canada and Romania ponied up another 1,000. Allied armies are stretched thin with a wide variety of peacekeeping and peacemaking missions, most recently in Lebanon.
Friendly governments fear the new Afghan war is unwinnable short of a major 10-year commitment. But parliaments and national assemblies balk. Meanwhile, Afghans know from their centuries old experience sooner or later foreign conquerors leave -- and in this case the indigenous Taliban stays, lavishly funded by its cut of the opium poppy bonanza.