In Riyadh, it is clear that the Taliban are not becoming more popular in Afghanistan, as some have claimed. Their record in government is well remembered by Afghans who, including large numbers of the Pashtun, suffered greatly at the hands of Mullah Omar's Taliban cohorts.
Nor are the Taliban a cohesive or uniform political party, with a chain of command and a political manifesto. Rather, any disaffected, rebellious, or aggrieved Afghan who overtly opposes the government by military means and otherwise has come to be identified as Taliban.
Nor is merely disabling Osama bin Laden enough, as some suggest. He has become not only the symbol of opposition to the world order, in general, and the US, in particular, but he is looked upon by disaffected youth – and not just Muslims – as the indomitable, untouchable, and indestructible Robin Hood. Even if he did not organize and execute terrorist acts, the fact that he survives, every day, reinforces that appeal and adds to his charisma. Bringing him to account is a necessity, not a choice, whether by capture or by death.
What should Mr. Obama and the US do?
First, overcome the misguided handling of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was initially shunned and denigrated by the administration, forcing him to reach out to unsavory politicos and "warlords" in order to win the recent elections. If there were a viable opposition to him, then you could undermine him. But there is not.
Abdullah Abdullah, President Karzai's main opponent in the election, is a Tajik, and in Afghan terms will not be accepted to lead the country by either the Pashtuns or the Uzbeks, the two largest components of Afghanistan's tribal structure.
Mr. Abdullah's "westerly ways" further undermined his credibility among nationalists. Once the commission investigating the election fraud declares its conclusions, the US should move on and concentrate on setting benchmarks for Karzai, especially on development projects.
Second, change the media theme from attacking the Taliban and calling them terrorists to concentrating on Al Qaeda and "foreign terrorists." By removing the stigma of terrorism from the Taliban, you can pursue meaningful negotiations with them. Mullah Omar has never enjoyed the full support of the Pashtuns. He is a lowly figure, in tribal terms, and he is blamed by many of them for the calamity that has befallen Afghanistan. Reaching out to the tribal leaders is what will move negotiations.
Third, fix the Durand Line. As long as this border drawn by the British is not fixed, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be at loggerheads, with suspicion between them being the rule. That is why Pakistan, in 1995, created the Taliban, because they wanted the Afghan Pashtuns to be on their side.
A joint development project for the border area, announced by both Pakistan and Afghanistan and supported by the US and the world community, will direct people's eyes to the future, rather than the past.
Fourth, convene a meeting of the security-intelligence departments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia to devise ways of eliminating Al Qaeda's leadership. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have a longstanding vendetta against Al Qaeda and will contribute intelligence and other resources to rid the world of this pestilence.
Fifth, push India and Pakistan to fix Kashmir. That is doable, once both countries see a determined effort by the US in that direction. Both countries are beholden to the US: Pakistan for the military and financial support it receives and India for the atomic energy agreement it has signed with the US. Saudi Arabia can play a supporting role because of the good relations it has with both and its standing in the Muslim world.
Sixth, having deployed extra military forces on the ground, make the terrorists their target, not the people. While Predators (drone aircraft) have killed a few terrorists, they have killed too many innocent civilians. Making sure that the intelligence is right is an imperative.
Seventh, take on the heroin trade. It is a challenge that can be met by a program that America used in the 1960s in Turkey, where heroin was extensively grown and processed. The US bought the entire crop from the farmers directly and allowed them to plant alternative crops for their livelihood. There is no more heroin trade in Turkey.
Resolution, reflection, and determination are the key characteristics of Obama's personality. He should stick with them. As in all difficult issues, when people see these qualities on display, most of them will be persuaded to follow.
When the Pashtuns, among whom Mr. bin Laden hides, see the determination to get him, they will calculate differently from when they see that nobody cares. When Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari see resolution in Obama's demands for benchmarks and for settling the border dispute between their countries, they will adhere.
When India and Pakistan feel the strength of the American push on Kashmir, they will come along.
When Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia sense a seriousness of purpose on eliminating the Al Qaeda leadership, they will gladly provide whatever support they can.
When the US's financial commitments on development are met, the people of Afghanistan will regain their confidence in America's word.
Mr. Obama, when your advisers or your interlocutors tell you that you can't do this or that, just say to them: "Yes, we can."
© 2009 Global Viewpoint Network. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.