Despite U.S. pressures, Pakistan continues to follow its own road

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 20, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government has some advice the Obama administration may not want to hear as it contemplates sending additional U.S. troops to neighboring Afghanistan: Negotiate with Taliban leaders and restrain India.

Pakistan embraces U.S. efforts to stabilize the region and worries that a hasty U.S. withdrawal would create chaos, but Pakistani officials worry that thousands of additional American soldiers and Marines would send Taliban forces retreating into Pakistan, where they're not welcome.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's office said Friday that he told visiting CIA Director Leon Panetta of "Pakistan's concerns relating to the possible surge of the U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan which may entail negative implications for the situation in Baluchistan," the Pakistani province that borders Afghanistan to the south.

The Pakistanis' advice is almost diametrically opposed to the strategy outlined by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan: Don't send additional forces to protect Afghan cities, but send them to outposts along the Pakistani border — where McChrystal has withdrawn troops.

It's just one example of how Pakistan, a critical U.S. ally in the struggle against Islamist extremists and a major recipient of American military aid, continues to deal differently with the violence that threatens not only the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but also impoverished, nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The two countries' divergent views of the threat posed by Islamist extremists, and the Obama administration's efforts to press Pakistan to move against groups that menace Afghanistan have produced strains between the two countries and between Pakistan's civilian government and its powerful military and Inter Services Intelligence agency — and a growing drumbeat of Pakistani allegations about alleged nefarious CIA activities in Pakistan.

"The Pakistanis say some things in public — often for reasons related to internal politics, it seems — that they don't focus on in private," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified. "That's not to say that we see eye-to-eye on everything behind closed doors, but both sides realize that — whatever the disagreements of the moment might be — the long-term partnership is essential. After all, Pakistani contributions to counterterrorism since 9/11 have been decisive, and our government recognizes that."

Instead of escalating the war in Afghanistan, however, top Pakistani officials are pressing the administration to try to negotiate a political settlement with top Taliban commanders that would allow the U.S. to exit Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials argue that that such a negotiating strategy can't work unless the rebel leadership is involved, right up to Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the most dangerous insurgent faction, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed founder of the Afghan Taliban and Osama bin Laden's ally and host.

Because Pakistan is a longtime patron of the Taliban and of the Haqqani network, Pakistani officials think they could broker a deal to reduce Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a figurehead leader and divide power between the Pashtun Taliban and Afghanistan's Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities.

U.S. and some Pakistani officials, however, are skeptical, arguing that the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate when their strength and sway in Afghanistan is growing and public and international support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is waning.

Najmuddin Shaikh, formerly the top bureaucrat in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, said the Taliban could be brought to the negotiating table if they saw a greater American military commitment and more investments in the Afghan countryside.

"It's a little premature for talks (with the Taliban)," Shaikh said. "There has to be a change in the ground situation, things happening in the next six to eight months that shows the 'ink spots' strategy (McChrystal's idea of protecting Afghan population centers) is taking hold, that some foot soldiers are being weaned away, then talks become possible."

Nevertheless, behind the scenes talks with mid-level Taliban officials already have begun, and Pakistani officials think they could rapidly accelerate now that Karzai has begun his second term.

"We've already been talking to them (the Taliban)," said a senior Pakistani official in Islamabad, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "If the U.S. helps the process, some arrangements can be worked out for political reconciliation. I'm not for a moment suggesting that it's an easy task, but otherwise you will be fighting these people for the next hundred years."

The United States and other NATO forces also favor talking to some Taliban, but they focus on "non-ideological" insurgents who can be peeled away, partly through bribery. Retired British general Graeme Lamb was appointed for this task in August, but so far the effort has produced little success.

"The Americans have wasted a lot of time over this 'moderate Taliban' idea. It is never going to pan out. It misunderstands the Taliban phenomenon," said Simbal Khan, an analyst at Institute of Strategic Studies, a policy institute funded by the Pakistani government. "If you try to break off elements with cash, they'll take your money and still fight you."

The Pakistani military and ISI still consider archrival India, not militant Islam, the main threat, and unlike U.S. officials, Pakistani officials distinguish between the Taliban and other militant groups whose target is Afghanistan and groups that are seeking to impose their extreme brand of Islam on Pakistan.

Pakistan has for eight years declined to mount any serious pursuit of bin Laden and the other top al Qaida leaders who sought shelter in Pakistan after the 2001 U.S. invasion drove them out of Afghanistan.

Pakistan also has quietly tolerated the presence of Mullah Omar, who U.S. officials said is based near the Baluchistan city of Quetta and shuttling between there and Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and a key financial and logistics center for Islamic militants. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence on terrorist groups is classified. Officially, Pakistan denies that bin Laden and Omar are in the country.

Pakistan's laissez-faire attitude toward al Qaida, Omar and Afghan militants such as Haqqani doesn't appear likely to change in the face of stepped-up American pressure.

U.S. national security adviser James Jones last week delivered a message to Gilani and other Pakistani officials from President Barack Obama, who urged Pakistan to take action against Afghan militant groups operating from Pakistani soil.

The Pakistanis politely told Jones that Pakistan is doing all it can, and that it must concentrate on groups that are attacking Pakistan, rather than those that are a threat in Afghanistan. Gilani's office said he told Jones that Pakistan's "forces were over-stretched because of continuous tension on the eastern border" with India.

Gilani's office said Friday that, "The new Afghan policy of the U.S. government should not disturb the regional balance in South Asia."

Pakistani officials say that relations with India remain dangerously strained, requiring military resources on Pakistan's eastern border. Pakistan is also concerned about India's growing influence in Afghanistan, which Islamabad fears is part of a move to encircle Pakistan.

With Pakistani forces already fighting the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, the country fears opening too many battlefronts and furiously rejects Washington's constant mantra of "do more."

U.S. officials say the Pakistani military is obsessed with the Indian border, where they say there's no active threat, and reluctant to address the threats that are a product of Pakistan's refusal to quash the insurgency on Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.

"When we get into the position of stabilizing, then we can help the other side (the U.S.)," said a senior Pakistani military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "There are limits of our power. You cannot be expected to use your force against all (militant) groups because then your power will be diluted. That's exactly what's happening on the other side (to the U.S. in Afghanistan), they're all over the place and virtually in control of nothing."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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