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Pants on fire

Pants on fire

Author: Chintamani Mahapatra
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 9, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/174883/Pants-on-fire.html

Saturday Special studies the Taliban trap which has ensnared all three parties that held a summit in Washington this week

The backdrop to this week's trilateral summit in Washington between Presidents Barack Obama of the United States, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan was filled with the clanging of alarm bells that a jihadist State was about to emerge in Pakistan in the near future, unless corrective measures were immediately taken.

Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA expert on South Asia and Chairman of a special committee set up by President Obama to write a new strategy report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, made such a comment. He added: "( it is ) one of the worst nightmares American foreign policy could have to deal with."

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff, expressed "grave concern" about the Taliban advance in Afghanistan and Pakistan. National Security Advisor James L. Jones spoke of it as "one of the very most serious problems" faced by the US. He added: "Pakistan has to survive as a democratic nation." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw it as an existential threat to Pakistan. David Obey, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was "very doubtful" about the success of Obama's new AfPak strategy. He compared it with Richard M.Nixon's Vietnam policy and gave the new President a year's time to prove success. US administration officials clearly saw danger American interests in the region.

Meanwhile, the mainstream American media is full of reports about the Taliban's advances in Pakistan from Swat Valley to Dir and to Bruner, which is about 60 miles from Islamabad. Pakistan, in fact, was the creator of the Taliban force that fought against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and captured power in Kabul in 1995. It did not create any Taliban force to enter Kashmir, but promoted jihadist outfits like the Laskar-e-Taeba and Jaish-e-Mohammad to terrorise parts of India, including Jammu and Kashmir.

But, of late, we hear about the Pakistani Taliban as a force to be reckoned with. After capturing Swat and forcing a compromise agreement on the Zardari Government to restore Islamic rule in the valley, the Pakistani Taliban have begun to move to neighbouring districts in Dir and Bruner. The Islamization of Swat materialised soon after Obama's Special Envoy, Richard Holbrook, returned to Washington after meeting with President Zardari in Islamabad. This gave rise to speculation that Zardari must have consulted and got a positive nod from Holbrook before inking an agreement with the Taliban in Swat.

But in actuality, the Obama administration was quite disturbed over the development. Though the President hinted he may open a dialogue with "moderate Taliban" ,the mainstream media discourse soon propagated powerful justifications to back him. Zardari's move towards the Taliban alarmed everybody since it was interpreted as a policy of appeasement.

Moreover, dividing Taliban as "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban alerted the leadership as well as the rank and file of the Taliban that the Obama administration intended to split them. The violent fury with which the Taliban responded to the "divide and conquer" strategy of the Obama administration is clearly reflected in the events that followed.

The inability of the US and NATO forces to stem the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan; the incapacity of the Pakistani Army to extend Islamabad's writ to the provinces bordering Afghanistan and the victory of the Taliban in gaining Islamabad's concurrence in establishing Islamic jurisprudence in Swat appear to have made Washington nervous. The Islamic students in about 12000 registered and several more unregistered madrasas of Pakistan, including in the province of Punjab, are now looked at with suspicion as breeding centres for future Talib.

One of the US' most serious concerns emanates from the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear armed country. If the seat of government of captured by the Taliban, US officials argue, nuclear weapons would certainly fall in the wrong hands. Nuclear terrorism, which was until recently regarded as just a theoretical menace, now seems a possibility. The Pakistani government considers Taliban expansionism as nothing but a false alarm. But the fact remains that its own child has come to hunt it so badly.

The number of terrorist acts in Pakistan has grown exponentially in recent years. Bombs have exploded in market places, government institutions, security establishments and even places of worships. What Pakistan-trained terrorists did abroad, mostly in India, is being witnessed within Pakistan proving the proverb-chicken coming back home to roost-true.

Unless the expansion of Taliban influence is stemmed now, Obama's AfPak ambitious and comprehensive strategy to deal with the problems of the region would face enormous hurdles from its inception. Checking Taliban expansionism would not succeed without the full cooperation of all branches of the Pakistani government, including the Army and ISI.

Washington's problem is compounded by the fact that there is a tremendous trust deficit in the Zardari government. In the face of Pakistan's failure to ensure safe passage to civil and military supplies to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan through mountain passes of the country, the Obama Administration has struck deals with Russia, Ukraine and the Central Asian republics to open alternative supply routes. The Obama strategy does not rule out the possibility of seeking help even from Iran and others in this venture.

US legislators are questioning the need to provide so much of assistance to Pakistan at the time of economic crisis and in the backdrop of lack of trust in the Zardari Government's performance. While President Obama does not want to give a "blank cheque" to Pakistan and intends to make it conditional upon the latter's successful contribution to fighting the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistani officials have argued that the US always gave considerable assistance to military regimes and now is yet to reimburse the $1.5 billion spent by Pakistan in counterinsurgency operations.

On the other hand, influential US legislators appear determined to make US assistance sufficiently conditional to extract adequate Pakistani support in combating Al Qaeda terrorism and eliminating the Al Qaeda base in the region. Congressman Gary Ackerman is of the view that Pakistan's "pants are on fire." Both the Obama and Zardari administrations are wary of Congressional toughness.

Zardari, during his recent visit to Washington, met with the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and requested prompt assistance. But by comparing US aid to Pakistan with the US government's rescuing of AIG, he rubbed the US legislators on the wrong side. The Congress will, of course, pass legislation to give enhanced assistance to Pakistan, but it will be largely because of the fear that the alternative would be a nightmare.

- The writer is Professor and Head, CCUS&LAS, School of International Studies, JNU


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