Troubles with the Taliban

Washington has undermined Mr. Musharraf's ability to move against the Taliban and help Afghanistan. 

By Ximena Ortiz

11/21/03: (Information Clearing House) Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Abdullah made his polite entreaties last week in Washington with restrained vehemence. Yes, Afghanistan needs more money, more peace keepers. But Mr. Abdullah's message had a more unexpected focus: Washington needs to do something about Pakistan, and the Taliban members assembled there.

Mr. Abdullah didn't put it so bluntly. He speaks Foreignministerese. "We expect our friends to work more with our neighbors," he told me in an interview, when asked what role the United States should play in gaining from Pakistan greater action on the Taliban front. "Though we can talk bilaterally [with Pakistan], we think it's also important to have the U.S. involved in this."

Mr. Abdullah described the ease with which the Taliban is able to act in "some" countries. "It is like holding a press conference," said Mr. Abdullah with some irony, in describing the Taliban's press outreach. "It is like holding a cabinet meeting," he said of the high-level conferences they blithely hold. Although al Qaeda may have lost its base, it appears the Taliban has found its haven in northwest and southwest Pakistan.

Mr. Abdullah also mentioned Pakistani press reports that said militant groups active in Afghanistan were being supplied with motorbikes and VHF radios in Pakistan. "We believe that if activities of such scale are taking place, it would be known to the authorities," Mr. Abdullah said. Mr. Abdullah also acknowledged the political difficulties Pakistani officials face in cracking down on Taliban forces. "I understand the constraints," he said.

By dropping these complaints in Washington, Mr. Abdullah demonstrated that Afghanistan isn't satisfied with Washington's handling of the Taliban's resurgence in Pakistan. President Bush has requested $3 billion in aid for Pakistan, which should buy considerable diplomatic leverage. But Washington faces a quandary in dealing with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. If America pushes Mr. Musharraf to rein in the Taliban, the Pakistani president could lose the uncertain support of mullahs and military and intelligence officials. Pressure Mr. Musharraf too much, and Pakistan, and the country's nukes, could come under the control of more threatening forces.

Washington has brought some of this quandary on itself. Mr. Bush has widened America's credibility gap and made cooperation with Washington more politically risky around the world, by suggesting Saddam Hussein had a link to September 11 and was on the verge of building a nuclear bomb. Washington has thereby undermined Mr. Musharraf's ability to move against the Taliban and help Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Mr. Musharraf is unkindly referred to as Busharraf, for implementing Mr. Bush's agenda.

Pakistanis eager to see greater democratic opportunities for mainstream political parties have also been alienated by unqualified U.S. support of Mr. Musharraf. In the October 2002, politicians from the parties of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were undermined in a variety of ways. Islamic political parties made unprecedented gains in that election, becoming the third largest political block in the National Assembly and sweeping the vote in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province that border Afghanistan. The rise of Islamists was due in part to the undermining of mainstream parties, but a backlash against U.S. policies also played a central role.

The Bush administration won't be addressing its misleading suggestions leading up to the Iraq war, and it is too late to rethink the wisdom of launching a war in Iraq while engaged in Afghanistan. But the administration may be willing to make some foreign policy shifts.

A move by the Bush administration to formally mediate a peace between Pakistan and India over the disputed territory of Kashmir would greatly please many Pakistanis, who are more concerned about India and Kashmir than they are about Afghanistan and the Taliban. Such a move would make Pakistanis more accepting of strengthened efforts to stop Taliban incursions into Afghanistan. India has been opposed to allowing foreign 
parties mediate the conflict, so some nimble diplomatic manuevering would be necessary to change the mindset at New Delhi.

The United States should also consider bolstering its military training of Pakistani forces. The current program only trains about 20 Pakistani servicemen a year. If this program was substantially expanded, the United 
States could significantly affect the clout and professionalism of Pakistani troops, and make Pakistan's leader less vulnerable to restlessness in the corps.

The United States should stop trying to win in Afghanistan on the cheap. Devoting more resources for reconstruction and to "buy" the cooperation of tribal leaders would help deny the Taliban of its havens. It would also help save the lives of coalition forces and the Afghan people. Also, success in Afghanistan is surely noted by jihadis in Iraq - as are failures.

The presence in Pakistan of Taliban forces determined to launch military campaigns into Afghanistan is dangerous for the Afghan people and coalition forces. It is also emblematic of the secondary importance the 
administration has assigned to Afghanistan. The United States should heed Mr. Abdullah's concerns, and make the necessary policy shifts.

Ximena Ortiz <> is the 2003-2004 recipient of the Pulliam editorial fellowship. She is writing a book, "The War, According to the World," on the global policy repercussions of the Iraq war. 

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