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Friday, March 02, 2007

The Downward Spiral of Pakistan

It is difficult in the best of times to get good information from the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but my sources who visit the region regularly say the situation is even worse than the dire situation already written about in numerous publications.

The question is rapidly becoming whether the forced U.S. marriage with Musharraf has reached is useful end, given his constant and not so private dalliance with the Taliban. I would argue it has, but the divorce is likely to be messy.

It seems that Masharraf’s perception is that India is his main enemy and the Afghan government, the United States and NATO are heavily tilted toward his enemy. So he has reached out to the Taliban on several fronts. In fact, the ties were never really cut. ISI had a role in protecting the Taliban leadership during the U.S.-led occupation, but were not allowed to help al Qaeda, at least not overtly.

One of the more interesting accounts is in the Asia Times, describing a more or less formal alliance with the Taliban while the Taliban separates itself from al Qaeda. Sources in the region say it is clear that some sort of deal has been struck, broader than just the publicly-acknowledged truce in some of the territories.

Given the relatively lame duck status of the Bush administration and the clear understanding that Iran is going to suck up all the remaining policy oxygen, Musharraf can host VP Cheney, promise whatever needs to be promised and be relatively sure he will not be held accountable in a meaningful way. The arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund may be a bone to throw. As noted on Counterterrorism Blog, he has been captured and freed before. My guess is that, in a few months, the whereabouts of the mullah will be unknown.

Musharraf has his reasons for tolerating or even supporting the Taliban, especially if they can somehow unentangle themselves from al Qaeda’s direct presence. Pakistan can keep Kabul constantly on the defensive, control a friendly border force and lessen India’s influence in the region.

The geopolitics may make sense from Musharraf’s perspective, but all this was tried before, in 1995-96, when the Taliban swept to power the first time. It was an unmitigated disaster and Pakistan found itself losing control over an insurgency that was able to open other lines of resupply and build, through the al Qaeda network, other alliances. This is why Viktor Bout was able to sell aircraft to the Taliban-they were branching out from the ISI-Pakistan networks.

Musharraf, like much of the rest of the world, seems to be willing to bet that U.S. interests and resources cannot cover all the bases out there. Besides, he has the bomb, and no one likes to mess with a nuclear power.

The short-term answer is that the NATO forces will have go it alone along the border. There will be no meaningful Pakistani help, and likely a lot of ISI leaks, blocking moves and clandestine support for the Taliban in the upcoming spring offensive. In the long-term, if the Taliban has a form of state sponsorship and the NATO coalition’s will wilts with casualties during the upcoming offensive, the prospects are increasingly grim.

douglas farah
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