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Pakistan: Former Ally Still Sees Future Afghan Role For Taliban

  • Charles Recknagel

As Pakistan backs the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, the once-close ties between Pakistan and the Taliban have steadily worsened. But Pakistan continues to support the idea that some elements among the Taliban should be included in any post-crisis Afghan government. REF/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Islamabad on the reasons behind Pakistan's stance.

Islamabad, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan today is the only country in the world to still recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's official government.

The only other two states that ever had diplomatic ties with the Taliban -- Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- broke off relations with the militia soon after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. Those ruptures came as the Taliban refused to hand over to the West accused terrorist Osama bin Laden -- who Washington says masterminded the suicide bombings.

Until now, Islamabad has argued that keeping its diplomatic ties with the Taliban is important for keeping open at least one channel of communication between the militia and the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism.

But as U.S. military strikes against the Taliban continue -- and Pakistan provides key logistical support for the operations -- the diplomatic links between Islamabad and the Taliban have grown ever more tenuous. Those ties are likely to weaken even further following the Taliban's withdrawal from Kabul and the opposition Northern Alliance's capture of the capital overnight.

Last week, the Pakistani Foreign Office summoned Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salem Zaeef to ask him to stop his daily press briefings at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad. The Foreign Office said that under its diplomatic conventions, no diplomat is permitted to use a press conference to attack a third country -- something Zaeef has repeatedly done as he condemns Washington's policies.

Islamabad followed up that warning two days later by asking the Afghan embassy to close down its consulate in Karachi. The Foreign Office gave no reasons publicly for its decision, but several Pakistani newspapers have quoted officials as saying privately that the step was taken in response to violent anti-U.S. demonstrations in the city.

At the same time, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin has said that Washington hopes Islamabad will also close the Taliban's consulates in the northwestern city of Peshawar and the southwestern city of Quetta, both on the Afghan border.

Taliban officials have reacted angrily to the recent Pakistani measures against them. One top figure in the Taliban administration, Mufti Masoom Afghani -- a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan himself -- said last week the militia no longer has friendly ties with Pakistan. Speaking at a press conference at the southwestern Pakistani border crossing point of Chaman, he said, "Our friendly relations with Pakistan have ended."

Yet even as Pakistan has reduced its diplomatic relations with the Taliban, Islamabad continues to say it favors giving what it calls moderate elements within the Taliban the chance to participate in any post-crisis Afghan government.

Rifaat Hussein is a professor of international relations at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. He says Islamabad sees including some elements of the Taliban as necessary if Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population is to play a full part in any new broad-based Afghan administration.

"What Pakistan is saying is that you have to get the Pashtun representatives on board, and you cannot do that unless some elements of the Taliban join hands with them, because the Taliban still remain very popular. [That] means you will not have stability and unity in Afghanistan as long as some elements of the Taliban are brought into this power equation that everybody is now talking about."

The new power equation is the internationally backed proposal by Afghanistan's exiled king, Zahir Shah, to form a broad-based transitional government for the country, to lead the way to national elections.

But Pakistan's desire to include Taliban elements is opposed by several other key parties to the Afghan conflict. These include the opposition Northern Alliance, which is made up primarily of members of Afghanistan's minority Tajik and Uzbek populations. The idea also is opposed by the alliance's key foreign backers -- Russia, Iran, and India.

Analysts in Islamabad say Pakistan sees full representation of the Pashtun majority -- the community from which the Taliban has drawn its strength -- as crucial for two reasons.

One is a belief that the country cannot be stable under any government dominated by Afghanistan's ethnic minorities because it would be unacceptable to the Pashtuns.

The other is a conviction that Pakistan needs a government in Kabul as stable and friendly as possible if Islamabad is to have a secure western border, as it faces off to the east with India.

Pervez Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, puts Pakistan's position regarding any future government in Afghanistan this way:

"I think basically we are trying to [encourage] a government which does not create troubles for Pakistan because Pakistan is already locked up on the eastern frontier. We would like to have one border which is tension-free."

Cheema says Pakistan sees many possibilities for an unfriendly government in Afghanistan to create troubles for Pakistan, beginning with the boundary line of the Pakistan-Afghan border itself. The boundary -- called the Durand Line -- remains in dispute and has yet to be recognized by any Afghan regime, including the Taliban.

Cheema says Pakistan has been particularly sensitive in the past over unfriendly Afghan regimes seeking to fan separatist sentiment among Pakistan's own Pashtun minority. Some separatists have called for joining their territory to Afghanistan for a greater "Pashtunistan."

"We have had a troubled history of the Durand Line, and for some time we also had the 'Pashtunistan' issue being propped up. For the last 20 or 30 years, there hasn't been any 'Pashtunistan' movement. But on the other hand, you can never rule out the possibility that somebody wants to use that for the purposes of applying political pressure [to Pakistan]."

One widespread concern in Pakistan is that India is seeking to exert its influence in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan's western border. That fear surfaced again last week as Pakistan's Foreign Office criticized India for asserting that the Taliban should have no place in Afghanistan's future.

Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Mohammad Khan said, "That is the Indian position, but our position is that the dissident elements from the Taliban or any other group who wishes to join the broad-based government in Afghanistan should be given the opportunity."

Pakistan's worries over the shape of Afghanistan's future have increased as the Northern Alliance makes battlefield gains behind the U.S. air strikes on the Taliban's front lines, including the Northern Alliance's dramatic entry overnight into Kabul and the Taliban's retreat from the capital. The alliance had previously taken control of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and the western city of Herat.

The Northern Alliance had vowed to stop short of entering Kabul following repeated warnings by Western leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, not to take the capital. U.S. officials had said that if the minority-based alliance seizes Kabul, the action could spark new rounds of ethnic-based fighting in the country and increase regional instability.

An Afghan opposition leader, Yousin Qanooni, is quoted today as saying the Northern Alliance has no plans to rule the country following the capture of the capital Kabul. He says the alliance plans to keep security in the city and to suppress criminal activity. He said the alliance is still committed to the Council of National Unity that has been formed with the former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

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