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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 October 2006, 18:20 GMT 19:20 UK
Musharraf's misunderstood Afghan strategy
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

President Musharraf
President Musharraf wants a dialogue with the Taleban
Allies in the "war on terror" may want to turn the heat on Pakistan to rein in its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but they may need to be careful not to drive President Pervez Musharraf too hard on the issue in public.

The fear is that instability in Islamabad would increase the influence of Islamic hardliners in the region.

This was apparent when the commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan, Lt Gen David Richards, arrived in Islamabad on Monday for a meeting with the president.

Gen Richards has been quoted as telling a newspaper that President Musharraf publicly acknowledged a "Taleban problem on the Pakistan side of the border" and that "undoubtedly something has got to happen".

Intelligence leak

Western allies in the global war on terror have tended to show increased understanding of Pakistan's "constraints" in curbing the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Taleban fighters
Some argue theTaleban have been turned into a 'Frankenstein's monster'

But a possible ISI role in supporting and equipping the Taleban keeps the Western allies cautious, often forcing them to exert pressure through back channels such as intelligence leaks to the media.

The most recent focus on the ISI's alleged involvement in Afghanistan has come following the leaking of a document prepared by a British think tank linked to the UK Ministry of Defence.

President Musharraf himself added to the chorus by admitting that some "former ISI officials" may be helping Taleban, adding that the government was determined to stop them.

The leak itself followed the president's recent US visit, where he promoted the idea of political reconciliation with the Taleban as an alternative to finding a military solution.

So far, President Musharraf had kept any criticisms he may harbour over Western policy in Afghanistan largely to himself.

Many observers have raised the question as to why General Musharraf feels the need for a new approach to the Afghan issue five years after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

One view is that over the years, Pakistan has helped build the Taleban insurgency to such a level that it has now become a "Frankenstein's monster" which it can no longer control.

'Ground reality'

Another view is that Pakistan may have started rethinking its own security paradigm in the region. This means keeping a distance from militancy in Kashmir and cracking down on al-Qaeda.

Nato troops in Afghanistan
Nato troops are reported to have engaged in more heavy fighting

But it also means keeping political channels open with the Taleban.

It seems the Western allies in the "war on terror" are finding it hard to come to terms with this new "ground reality".

The reason for their reluctance is not hard to find.

From 1989 to 2001, the Western world knew little about the developments that tore through the war-ravaged Afghanistan in the shape of a civil conflict followed by Taleban rule.

Left alone to pick up the pieces, the ISI used the opportunity to shape the future of Afghanistan with a view to securing strategic depth against India.

After the September 2001 attacks in the US, the single-minded aim of the allies was to eliminate al-Qaeda and Taleban from the map, an aim which left no room for negotiations with either of them.

By 2003, it became obvious to most Western intelligence networks that they could not operate in Afghanistan without drawing on the immense store of knowledge available to the ISI.

Casualties

Between 2003 and 2005, western agencies worked closely with the ISI to uncover a large number of al-Qaeda operatives, overlooking occasional evidence that elements of the ISI may also have been secretly helping the Taleban.

Gen David Richards
Gen Richards believes success over the winter is crucial

President Musharraf's continual defence of Pakistan's peace agreement with the tribal militants in North Waziristan, and his support for a political rapprochement with the Taleban in Afghanistan, has caught many in the West off guard.

The West can either give a call for dialogue to the followers of Taleban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar or it can risk further troop casualties by continuing its fight with the Taleban in southern Afghanistan.

The first option amounts to political tight-rope walking, and few Western leaders would be willing to take the chance, given that important elections are just round the corner in the US.

The second option can be pursued only by tightening the screws on the ISI in the hope that Pakistan can actually be forced to rethink its strategy in Afghanistan as it did in the case of Kashmir.


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