ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Without firing a single shot, the U.S. has largely succeeded in convincing people and governments across the region that the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion.
From people in the streets to the leaders of international aid agencies to the president of Pakistan himself, the growing — if presumptuous — consensus is that the Taliban’s days are numbered, and that more thought needs to be given to who and what will succeed them.
But Pakistanis who know the Taliban say there's no guarantee the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition can succeed in driving out a group that has successfully held power for five years against a wide range of determined enemies.
Many Pakistanis and officials here said Tuesday that to write off the Taliban already may be dangerous. But that didn’t prevent them from discussing life beyond the Taliban as if it were already a reality.
"They are cornered. Even those who support them know they will have to give up power — for years at least," said Ahmet Gull Shah, a merchant in one of Islamabad’s shopping districts.
Shah and others believe the Taliban will quickly be swept from power. Others believe they may surrender the formal trappings of power and head to the hills, where they will continue plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
Some Pakistanis seem to be more skeptical of the Taliban’s chances since President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan — the only country that still has ties with the group — replied "it appears so" when asked in an interview if he believed the group's days in power were finished.
Musharraf said he had all but given up on efforts to mediate the standoff between the Taliban and the Bush administration. His comments sparked much speculation in the Pakistani capital on Tuesday — dutifully denied by the foreign ministry — that Musharraf had already decided to push for the overthrow of the current Taliban leadership in favor of a more moderate group.
Others cautioned that dismissing the Taliban could prove a huge mistake. The group has a formidable combat record, supporters noted, and certainly isn’t going quietly.
In fact, the Taliban seem to seize every opportunity to dismiss if not ridicule American demands they surrender Usama bin Laden and wipe out his Al Qaeda network.
A Taliban envoy in Pakistan Tuesday reiterated the group's so-far-futile demand that the U.S. negotiate for bin Laden's handover and dismissed threats that the U.S. and its allies would topple the regime.
"Only Allah changes the regime and only Allah brings the others instead of us," said the Taliban's ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef.
Another sign of continued defiance came Tuesday, as thousands protested in the streets of Kandahar, shouting "We are ready for jihad!" and "Death to America!"
The Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based agency some consider an official press outlet for the Taliban, claimed 10,000 marchers burned American flags and effigies of President Bush, insisting Afghanistan would not give up bin Laden.
A Pakistani journalist who said he had spoken with people who watched the rally said the actual number who attended the rally was much smaller. But the theme of the rally fairly reflected the Taliban’s continued resistance.
The AIP also issued a report Tuesday saying tribal leaders in the provinces of Paktia, Pktika and Kohst had pledged 6,000 volunteers to the Taliban should U.S. forces attack. That statement came just a day after the tribal leaders struck a deal with the Taliban for a new power-sharing agreement in the southern provinces.
But back in the safety of Islamabad hotel meeting rooms and government offices, there was open talk and planning for life after the Taliban — even among those who still work with the current Afghan regime.
"We don’t know what the specific military and political repercussions will be, but I do agree that the days of the Taliban are probably numbered," said Brunson McKinley, director-general of the Intergovernmental Organization for Migration, which operates two refugee camps within Afghanistan.
McKinley, speaking at the daily press briefing of U.N. and affiliated agencies, said it was perhaps time to consider "new possibilities" in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, whenever and if that ever happened.
Officials with other agencies said they, too, had been planning for some time for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. They also conceded it was a bit soon to be moving too quickly with those plans.
"There’s no guarantee of anything when it comes to the Taliban and Afghanistan," remarked an operations official with one group. "But we can’t pretend we aren’t aware of the possibilities, as enticing as they are."