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    South Asia
     Jan 27, 2007
Page 1 of 2
US elevates Pakistan to regional kingpin
By M K Bhadrakumar

The hearings of the US congressional committees on intelligence in Washington in the past two successive weeks make it clear that the administration of President George W Bush has no intention of pressuring Pakistan over the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Moreover, there may be no need for the Bush administration to pressure President General Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani leader seems to be positioning to play a profoundly meaningful role in US regional policy as a whole that will go far beyond the

limited turf of Afghanistan. In return, he can be confident of solid US backing for his controversial re-election bid as Pakistan's president in September. (Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.)

The Bush administration's predicament was fully revealed in the contradictory references contained in the written statement handed in by the then director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, during his testimony before the US Senate subcommittee on intelligence on January 11. On the one hand, Negroponte claimed that al-Qaeda's core elements are still "resilient" and are plotting against US national-security interests from their leaders' "secure hideout" in Pakistan and, furthermore, that the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintained "critical sanctuaries" in Pakistan.

On the other hand, Negroponte described Pakistan as the United States' "frontline partner in the war on terror", even though Pakistan remained a "major source of Islamic terrorism".

Again, Negroponte estimated that the challenges facing President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul are "significantly exacerbated by terrorism but not exclusively attributable to it". Negroponte also put in proper perspective the Taliban challenge by saying it didn't pose any direct threat as such to the Kabul government, though it could be deterring reconstruction and "undermining popular support" for Karzai himself.

Negroponte treated with kid gloves the entire delicate issue of Taliban and al-Qaeda activities in Pakistan's tribal agencies, which is the heart of the matter. Notably, he spoke with understanding about Pakistan's genuine difficulty in cracking down on the militants' "safe haven" in the tribal agencies, given the potential for tribal rebellions and a "backlash" by sympathetic Islamic political parties in Pakistan, which are staunchly opposed to the US military presence in Afghanistan.

But the astonishing part of Negroponte's statement was his observations regarding the nexus between the "war on terror" and Musharraf's own political future. Negroponte implicitly acknowledged that Musharraf is politically vulnerable and his ability to crack down on the Taliban will, therefore, be significantly reduced in the months ahead because of the compulsions of the elections in Pakistan.

But elsewhere in his testimony, Negroponte contradicted himself by virtually expressing confidence that Musharraf's continuance in power is beyond doubt, despite the huge criticism within Pakistan about his remaining president as well as chief of army staff. Negroponte said, "There are no political leaders inside the country able to challenge his continued leadership. Musharraf's secular opponents are in disarray, and the main Islamic parties continue to suffer from internal divisions and an inability to expand their support base."

What explains such verbal jugglery? Indeed, statements at other senior levels in the Bush administration in recent days have also paid handsome compliments to Musharraf's cooperative attitude in countering the Taliban challenge, including at the level of the military leadership.

The commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, General David Richards, went out of his way on at least two occasions in recent weeks to express total satisfaction over Pakistan's role. He even attributed to Pakistan credit for the reduced level of Taliban activity since autumn.

In an interview with an Afghan news agency last week, Richards said the Pakistani army was fully cooperating and was doing its best to stop cross-border activities by the Taliban. He said categorically, "It is no longer the policy of the Pakistan government to see the Taliban in Afghanistan." No matter Islamabad's past policies in Afghanistan, Richards stressed, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is now fully cooperating. He then revealed that it was thanks to an ISI tipoff that it had been possible to kill prominent Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Osmani in Helmand province last month.

"The conditions are ripe for a complete victory," Richards claimed. So what has happened to the crisis that Karzai has been complaining about in respect of Pakistan's alleged role in masterminding the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan? Was it all a concoction by the international media? (Richards actually put the blame on the media for unduly exaggerating the Taliban challenge.)

Someone also seems to have advised Karzai to see the writing on the wall. He too has calmed down. In his presidential address to the Afghan Parliament in Kabul on Sunday, Karzai refrained from criticizing Pakistan. He vaguely attributed in a passing reference all the "Talibanphobia" to "certain Pakistani circles". Only a few weeks ago an agitated Karzai indulged in a "public display of resentment" toward visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz through "hot words, gestures, body language and finger-pointing", to quote a former Pakistani ambassador in Kabul.

Evidently, Karzai has been advised by the United States to restrain himself. There is a deliberate US attempt to play down the gravity of the Afghan crisis - and Pakistan's role in it. Yet The Economist magazine wrote, "Insurgents allied to the Taliban are believed to be planning a big offensive. NATO has hopes its soldiers in Afghanistan could forestall this during the winter, through military pressure on the Taliban and huge amounts of civilian aid. That strategy is in tatters."

And indeed, the White House is to ask Congress next month for US$8 billion in new funds for Afghanistan, which is more than half the $14.2 billion Washington has spent on the country since the US-led invasion in 2001. And about 3,200 US troops who were due to end their tour of duty are to remain for a further 120 days.

A sense of alarm over the Taliban's resurgence is apparent in regional capitals, especially Moscow, Tehran and New Delhi. Top leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance (which spearheaded the anti-Taliban resistance) visited Tehran in recent weeks and held consultations with Iranian officials. Iranian and Indian foreign ministers visited Kabul. The Russian foreign minister was scheduled to pay a visit to Kabul on Wednesday en route to 

Continued 1 2 

The winter of the Taliban's content (Jan 25, '07)

Tribal tribulations in Afghanistan (Jan 19, '07)

How the Taliban keep their coffers full (Jan 10, '07)

In the land of the Taliban. A series by Syed Saleem Shahzad


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