Last week, Abdul Qadeer Khan, now a free man, was a guest on ARY, one of Pakistan's most popular TV channels with a strong anti-U.S. bias. A frequent guest on ARY is another notorious anti-American, Gen. Hamid Gul, long retired as a former Inter-Services Intelligence agency chief and self-appointed adviser to Pakistan's anti-U.S. Islamist political parties. Not only did he get 90 minutes of air time, but Khan talked openly of when he might be president or prime minister, enough to give official Washington conniption fits.
The flood-ravaged country of 180 million has been set back by five to 10 years by the worst disaster in the country's 63-year history, decimating its buffalo herd of some 26 million that produced about 70 percent of the country's milk, a staple diet for newborns and the country's youth.
Entire villages, along with flimsy dwellings, cars, trucks, livestock, bridges, roads, villages, all were washed away, leaving a gooey mud over an area the size of England. For a truly biblical catastrophe, the loss in lives was small: 1,600. But 6 million are in desperate need of food and 3 million children are at risk from waterborne diseases.
Some 16 million people lost their meager livelihood and estimates of damage ranged from $20 billion to $40 billion. Total U.S. aid is $7.5 billion over five years. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her opposite number in Islamabad, "There is acute donor fatigue In Congress."
Pakistan's civilian government never got its act together for flood relief and the army had to cut down drastically on its operations against Taliban on the Afghan border. One estimate put the number of soldiers withdrawn from the tribal areas at 60,000, leaving 67,000 to cope with Taliban's privileged sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Afghanistan; the only one crowing about victory was the reclusive Taliban chief Mullah Omar, still in hiding after nine years of guerrilla warfare.
In a message read out in mosques throughout Afghanistan to mark the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the official end of the Ramadan's monthlong fast, Mullah Omar said, "the strategists behind the nine-year war" now realize they are "mired in complete failure. The victory of our Islamic nation over the invading infidels is now imminent and the driving force behind this is our faith in the help of Allah and the unity among us."
The Taliban's elusive chief, a veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation (1979-89), added that his fighters were forbidden to "harm common citizens."
Taliban's insurgents have already killed scores of their fellow Afghans for the perceived crime of collaborating with American and other allied soldiers. Calling on all Afghans to expel foreign occupation forces, Mullah Omar said, "Put all your strength and planning behind the task of driving away the invaders and regaining the independence of our country."
Among the 47 nations -- U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus' number -- engaged in Afghanistan on the U.S./NATO side, there was more talk about "decent exits" than staying the course. The fighting Dutch left in August. The Canadians are going home next year, which leaves the United States and the United Kingdom the only two with fighting soldiers. But their domestic support is now less than 50 percent in each country.
Various geopolitical permutations are bandied about in Kabul's rumor mill. One scenario has Afghan President Hamid Karzai reconciling with Mullah Omar to accelerate the departure of all foreign forces. Another has Mullah Omar and his original Taliban council of 10 elders coming to terms with the United States through private channels that would keep Karzai and Pakistan's ubiquitous ISI out of the picture.
Although Taliban leaders have denounced Afghanistan's parliamentary elections this weekend and threatened violence at the polls, some have established direct contact with a number of Afghan candidates to enlarge their clandestine support and undermine Karzai's.
Karzai, on the other hand, used his end of Ramadan message to call on Mullah Omar to stop fighting and join peace talks to end the war. At the same time, Karzai urged his Western backers to refocus their troops' objective on insurgent sanctuaries over the border in Pakistan rather than fight in Afghan villages and kill more civilians. He also set up a handpicked council of political friends to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, which he reckons are exhausted after nine years of fighting. That's a dangerous assumption in a country where tribesmen are born with an AK-47 in their cradles.
For the supreme U.S. commander, Petraeus, it is important to shed the idea of a military victory. Clearly, it is no longer possible. The July 2011 deadline imposed by U.S. President Barack Obama means two entirely different things to Petraeus and Afghans. The latter see this as a major step toward total withdrawal irrespective of the military situation. This, in turn, encourages some local pols to make their peace with Taliban. For Petraeus, it's flexible and will depend entirely on military progress on the ground. And this, in turn, depends on how much of the burden has been assumed by the new Afghan army.
Adding to a complex picture of imponderables is a thoroughly corrupt and underpaid police force.
When Karzai goes so far as to say that "NATO forces cannot win this war," Petraeus replies, "I'm saying the same thing …This is the reality. As I said in Iraq when I was the commander, you don't end an industrial-strength insurgency by killing or capturing all the bad guys. You have to kill, capture -- or turn -- the bad guys. And that means reintegration and reconciliation."
More likely in the year to come is a deal with Taliban that would lock out al-Qaida -- and keep the advances made on behalf of women and schools for girls under Karzai since the defeat of Taliban following 9/11 in 2001.