Pakistan, the Taliban and the US | The Nation


Pakistan, the Taliban and the US

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Ahmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid, the Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is the...

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After twenty-one tension-filled days of raucous speeches, poetry readings, threats, bribery and walkouts, Afghanistan's loya jirga, held to endorse a new Constitution for Afghanistan after

Extremist forces are making a comeback as American attention turns to Iraq.

Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, has pledged full cooperation with the United States against terrorism, but Pakistan will need to carry out a U-turn in its policy of support for the Taliban if it is to regain the West's confidence and end its present diplomatic isolation. The stark policy choices the military faces may also require a complete turnaround from twenty years of clandestine support to jihadi parties and the growth of a jihadi culture, which has sustained its policies in Kashmir and Central Asia.

After having spent the past seven years providing every conceivable form of military, political and financial support to the Taliban, Pakistan is now essentially being asked by Washington to help the US bomb the Taliban leadership, along with their guest Osama bin Laden, and topple the Taliban regime.

In an immediate follow-up to Musharraf's rhetorical pledge to assist the United States in countering international terrorism, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell asked Pakistan to take concrete measures to prove its sincerity. "We thought as we gathered information and as we look at possible sources of the attack it would be useful to point out to the Pakistani leadership at every level that we are looking for and expecting their fullest cooperation,'' Powell said at a news conference on September 12. A day later, after mentioning Musharraf's message of support, Bush said, "Now we'll just find out what that means, won't we? We will give the Pakistani government a chance to cooperate and to participate as we hunt down those people.''

The United States has given the military regime a list of demands in order to facilitate Washington's expected attack on bin Laden. They are believed to include permission for the use of Pakistani airspace for the bombing of bin Laden's camps, an immediate end to Pakistan's supply of fuel and other goods to the Taliban, closure of Pakistan's borders with Afghanistan in order to prevent the escape of Arab militants to Pakistan and the sharing of intelligence with the United States about bin Laden and the Taliban.

The list is clearly only the first step in testing Pakistan's resolve. More demands are almost certain to follow, among them US use of military bases, airports and harbors for the expected military offensive. Washington has asked for a comprehensive report from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) about every detail it has on bin Laden, including his contacts with Pakistani extremists, his use of Pakistani militants to carry messages around the world and his hiding places in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Washington has given the ISI a little time--"no more than a week or so," according to Western diplomats--to see if it can persuade the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and dismantle the multinational network of extremists belonging to his Al Qaeda (the Base) organization. Within days of the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, senior ISI officers were in Kandahar holding intensive talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in a bid to convince him that if he does not hand over bin Laden, US strikes will also target the Taliban leadership. The chances of success are bleak, because of the close relationship between Omar and bin Laden. The Taliban have sounded alternately defiant and conciliatory, but on September 15, Omar issued a bellicose statement against the United States, saying the Taliban were ready to defend bin Laden and die. There does appear to be panic in the movement; several ministers in Kabul and commanders in the field have sent their families to Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan--indicating that they themselves are ready to flee.

Washington is thus for the moment adopting a two-track policy, pressuring Pakistan but at the same time giving it space to absolve itself of its past support for the Taliban and deliver bin Laden, something the ISI has refused to do over the past five years. Since September 11, Musharraf has been huddled with his top generals, giving no public statement of his intentions; in his two brief television appearances he has looked exhausted. After meeting with all his generals, his Cabinet and his National Security Council, the government has only said, without giving details, that it will stand by the United States.

Clearly, Musharraf has every reason to be worried. Pakistan has a 1,560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, and the United States would need Islamabad's full military and intelligence cooperation if it were to launch an attack. But for the past seven years Pakistan has been the main provider of military supplies, fuel and food to the Taliban army, and Pakistani officers have advised the Taliban on their military campaigns. Over the same period, up to 60,000 Pakistani Islamic students, three-quarters of whom were educated in Pakistani madrassahs, or religious schools, have fought in Afghanistan for the Taliban. One year ago, when the Taliban captured Taloqan in northeastern Afghanistan, then headquarters of the anti-Taliban United Front, more than sixty Pakistani military officers and a small unit of the Special Services Group--Pakistani commandos--were supporting and advising the Taliban force of 12,000 troops, which included some 4,000 non-Afghan militants.

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