by MB Naqvi
(IPS) KARACHI -- As the war between U.S.-led forces and the Taliban intensifies in Afghanistan, a first-rate diplomatic row has erupted between Pakistan and -- who?
Formally, it is Afghanistan. Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, backed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, accused Pakistan of letting remnants of the former ruling Taliban regime use Pakistan as a sanctuary in its fight against 20,000 U.S. soldiers backed by the Afghan Army.
Inside Afghanistan, the war has been heating up. An Afghan government official said Thursday that 132 Taliban had been killed in fighting in the country's south in recent days and that 150 more, including senior leaders, were surrounded by U.S. and Afghan soldiers. The number of Afghans dying is rising sharply.
The Taliban were mostly Pakistan's creation, and indeed proxies, who ruled Afghanistan as a strict Islamic state between 1996 and 2001, when the U.S. bombed some of them out of existence and chased the rest from Afghanistan in revenge for sheltering Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist group, accused of the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center.
The Taliban were Pakistan's secret weapon, through which it won back large tracts of Afghanistan in the civil war that broke out among Islamist forces in 1992.
The net result of that conflict was a terrible fragmentation of the country, with bits ruled by local warlords. The Taliban gradually co-opted or killed the warlords and united most of Afghanistan -- leaving only northern parts peopled by ethnic minorities -- under a nominal Islamic government.
The pertinent question is, who are the Taliban? Literally the word means "student." These young Pushtoons, students of religious seminaries in Pakistan, were especially recruited and trained by Pakistan's secret service, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). They conquered Afghanistan and became its rulers.
The Taliban represent a new, religious kind of Pushtoon nationalism -- quite distinct from various Pushtoon nationalist parties in Pakistan's North West Frontier (NWFP) and Balochistan provinces, which are of a strictly secular kind.
Since the Taliban profess extreme Islamic piety and Pushtoon nationalist sensibilities alike, they have many sympathizers and protectors in Pakistan, especially in the two provinces abutting Afghanistan.
The row between U.S. proconsuls in Afghanistan and Pakistan has an interesting background. Pakistan is concentrating its diplomatic fire on mainly one person: Khalilzad, who until recently was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and is now presiding over the sprawling U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and in fact guiding the war and political strategies of the new Iraqi government.
Pakistan charges that Khalilzad is heavily prejudiced against Pakistan, and has been using intemperate and undiplomatic language about the nation. President Pervez Musharraf has apparently spoken to President George W. Bush to complain about what Pakistanis call Khalilzad's diatribes and their influence on Kabul's rulers.
Afghan authorities have long been complaining that Pakistan is not doing enough to contain the Taliban.
They concede that Pakistan is doing a great job in arresting and deporting al-Qaeda operatives, some important ones. But in blunt words they accuse Pakistan of still protecting Taliban figures, and, in fact, of helping them. Kabul's rulers harbour dark suspicions of Pakistan's ultimate designs on their country.
The charges against Pakistan by Khalilzad, Karzai and Afghanistan's generals are grave. But even if Khalilzad is their main proponent, he is not acting independently.
To begin with, he is a much trusted trouble-shooter for the U.S. State Department and Bush's Republican Party. Government operations in Kabul today, and much of them in Baghdad, owe much to Khalilzad's choices and political strategies.
No ordinary diplomat, Khalilzad is said to be close to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. And he, Rice and Karzai all have links to the giant U.S. oil consortium Unocal, which has proposed building a pipeline that would carry oil from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan's newest port at Gawadar.
The diplomatic tiff inside the extended diplomatic fraternity supporting Washington is in many ways portentous. U.S. officials have not explained any statement of either Khalilzad or Karzai.
It is however true that Washington is encouraging Pakistan to continue playing its role in the U.S.-led "war on terror," a key role in many ways. Bush and others do not tire of praising Musharraf for his achievements in the war, and of combining that praise with financial and other aid.
Yet Washington is walking a fine line -- humoring Musharraf without letting up the pressure from political and quasi-military quarters, exemplified by the charges of Karzai and Khalilzad. The purpose seems to be to retain Musharraf's allegiance and cooperation in the war against terror while keeping the pressure on him so that he also delivers on the Taliban issue.
Afghans, from the top downward, suspect that Pakistan is not wholeheartedly cooperating with them. And there has been some evidence, mostly journalistic, showing the Taliban reorganizing and regrouping inside this country. Balochistan and parts of the NWFP supposedly serve as sanctuaries, and they do enjoy a fair amount of popular support there.
But Washington can do very little about this. For Musharraf is in fact powerless to arrest all Taliban, with so many Taliban in the making. U.S. officials cannot possibly force Musharraf to undertake an endless conflict with little chance of success, yet he must be kept under constant pressure so that the flow of Taliban into Afghanistan can at least be slowed.
While the diplomatic row probably will not explode, its long-range implications could be just as damaging.
June 24, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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