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    South Asia
     Dec 3, 2009
Pakistan at odds with Obama's vision
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - While United States President Barack Obama, after months of deliberation, has finally laid out his strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Washington's most important ally in the region, is charting a new course that will place it at odds with the United States.

Obama on Tuesday announced the dispatch of 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan over the next seven months, while also saying he would begin a draw-down of the US's presence in 18 months. The new inflow will see about 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan. In addition, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 

(NATO) and other members of the International Security Assistance Force currently have about 40,000 troops.

At the heart of Obama's plan appears to be the desire to sharply escalate the war in Afghanistan in an attempt to tighten the noose around the Taliban and al-Qaeda and then to open political dialogue with the Taliban that would lead to the dissolution of al-Qaeda's structures in South Asia and open the way for a US exit in the next few years.

Abdullah Shah Mazhar, a former supreme commander of the banned Pakistani militant group, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, when contacted by Asia Times Online concerning Obama's address, said, "I did not get the chance to hear President Obama's speech but, as you said, if he is is sending additional troops to Afghanistan, I think [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's [recent] statement is sufficient to answer him, that is, the Taliban can fight against the foreign occupation forces for the next seven years undeterred, without any support or assistance."

The Obama administration's concerns over the situation in Afghanistan have been heightened in the past month by the realization of the rapid regrouping of al-Qaeda in South Asia - and not only there. Specifically, alarm bells rang loudly when an al-Qaeda cell was found in Chicago last month. Orchestrated by a top al-Qaeda commander based in South Asia, Ilyas Kashmiri, members of the cell allegedly planned attacks in Denmark and India. (See Al-Qaeda has plans for its new recruit Asia Times Online, November 3, 2009.)

In this context, Pakistan is a key player, with Obama saying on Tuesday that Washington was "committed to a partnership ... that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust" and that Pakistan loomed ever-larger in his administration's strategic calculations.

Herein lies the rub: Pakistan, increasingly driven by the military establishment, is bent on looking after its own interests, regardless of the damage it might cause to the US's plans. Pakistan is most worried of a spillover of the Afghan war into its territory - it is already fighting militants in the tribal areas.

In a recent letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Obama offered Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including the carrot of additional military and economic cooperation, along with the stick of a warning with unusual bluntness that Pakistan's use of insurgent groups to pursue its policy goals would not be tolerated.

The two-page letter, which included an offer to help reduce tensions between Pakistan and India, was delivered to Zardari by National Security Adviser James Jones. It was accompanied by assurances from Jones that the US would increase its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and that it planned no early withdrawal.

Pakistan's present focus is squarely on cleaning up the mess in the tribal areas through military operations against anti-establishment militants. At the same time, it wants to limit its role in the US-led "war on terror", in which it has played a part since 2001, by striking peace deals with those groups which do not harm its national security.

Obama's letter called for closer collaboration against all extremist groups, naming five: al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban organization known as Tehrik-e-Taliban. In a subtle way, Obama said that ambiguity in Pakistan's relationship with any of them could no longer be ignored.

Pakistan, though, while wanting to play a mediating role between the Taliban and the US, does not want any active role in fighting the Taliban before they are eventually offered an olive branch as they do not pose any challenge to Pakistan's security. Islamabad is, though, prepared to tackle al-Qaeda and its associates.

Addressing this issue, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W Patterson, on Wednesday morning in Islamabad told a select group, of which Asia Times Online was a part, "The US military is working very closely with their Pakistani counterparts and both understand the threat levels from these militant groups. As far as Taliban commanders like [Mullah] Nazir and [Hafiz] Gul Bahadur are concerned, if the Pakistan army has cut a deal with them, it is not because Pakistan has any sympathies with them, but to prioritize its target during the course of military operations."

The ambassador continued, "We aim to make a very close coordination between the two armies [Pakistan's and the US's in Afghanistan]. Recently, a Pakistani military official was invited to Afghanistan and he surveyed Afghanistan’s northwestern borders, and similarly, the US commander of the eastern region had an aerial survey of the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The [top] American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has visited Pakistan six times this year and only very recently met [Pakistani army chief] General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kiani to take him into his confidence over NATO's Afghan strategy against the Taliban."

All the same, the US is aware of the tactical disharmony with Pakistan.

"Let me be very clear on this point, the US does not have any plans for reconciliation with the Taliban. We aim to make an arrangement, though, to speak with tribal elders and with the Taliban, but it is strictly in the spheres of the US policy that those Taliban will agree on peace terms and be integrated with Afghan society," Patterson said.

The US aims to complement its dependency on Pakistan by bringing other countries in the region into the loop, including India and the Central Asian republics, to fight against the Taliban insurgency. All the same, Patterson stressed that Pakistan would remain the key ally in this war. She also rejected reports that NATO had started moving a significant amount of its supplies through a Central Asian corridor into northern Afghanistan.

"Hardly 10% comes through Central Asia; 80% of the supplies are still coming through Pakistan," she said.

As a result of military operations in Pakistan, the most recent of which is continuing in North Waziristan, militant activities have been curtailed. However, Islamabad appreciates that the use of force is not a permanent solution; it only disperses the militants and they soon regroup.

As a result, Pakistan wants to strike peace deals with the militants. As in the past, though, while this will restore order inside Pakistan, it will redirect the militants to Afghanistan. This good for Pakistan, but it could have dire consequences for NATO troops.

Similarly on the political front, the Pakistani military establishment aims to change the dynamics of local politics in which the role of pro-US forces will be minimal.

Recently, under the military’s pressure, Zardari issued an amended ordinance in which the prime minister, instead of the president, is chairman of the National Command Authority which controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The military also wants opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League to become a part of the government, even suggesting that members of his party hold such important cabinet posts as interior, foreign affairs and finance.

Alternatively, it has been conveyed to Sharif that the present government, many of whose members face court action following the expiry of an amnesty ordinance, could be forced out.

Washington did not have any option but to stay in Afghanistan and supplement its forces with additional troops and resources, otherwise the Taliban would take control once again and al-Qaeda would regroup and carry out more brazen attacks, not only in the US but across the world.

But unlike after the September 11 attacks, the US essentially now has to act alone. European countries are with Washington, but, very much like Pakistan, they are looking primarily after their own interests and are reluctant to do any heavy lifting.

Obama said in his speech on Tuesday that the withdrawal of US forces would start after 18 months. This projection depends on the notion that the Americans can build the capacity of the Afghan forces to a level at which they can independently operate.

"As far as the Afghan army is concerned, it is as good and professional an army as any country could have," said a US military official who was with Ambassador Patterson on Wednesday morning.

Yet as the world has seen, when US forces recently pulled out from all of their bases in Nuristan province, leaving the Afghan National Army to guard the borders, the province quickly fell to the Taliban.

The US might be sending in more troops into Afghanistan, but they, too, could be in for a rough ride for a long time to come, while across the border Pakistan will be taking care of its own interests.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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US stalls as Pakistan drifts



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