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Pakistan: Top Analyst Says Islamabad Letting Taliban Survive

Islamabad's recent efforts in the war on terrorism have focused on Al-Qaeda fighters. But now there are growing calls from Western diplomats, the Afghan government and the United Nations for Pakistan to rein in Taliban militants who have fled from Afghanistan into Pakistan since late 2001.

Prague, 26 August 2004 -- Barnett Rubin, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, is among many South Asia analysts who think Pakistan's security forces are intentionally overlooking the presence of Taliban militants on their territory.

Most experts agree that Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency helped create the Taliban and gave it the military and financial support it needed to take control over most of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Islamabad has repeatedly denied those allegations and insists that it cut all ties with the Taliban when it joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the attacks 11 September 2001.

But like many independent analysts, Rubin insists that Pakistan's security services have fostered religious fundamentalism for years in order to promote Islamabad's foreign-policy goals. He said the key motivations include strategic concerns about India, as well as the dormant "Pashtunistan" question -- that is, the fear in Islamabad that ethnic Pashtun nationalists might take power in Kabul and make territorial claims on Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun border regions.

"Supporting some antigovernment forces in Afghanistan is something that Pakistan has done for decades in order to have some leverage over the government of Afghanistan," Rubin said. "They did have a long-term commitment toward supporting ethnic Pashtun religious extremists in Afghanistan in order to assure that an Afghan government would side with Pakistan against India and would not raise the issue of the Pashtun territories. [That's because] the Pashtun Islamists -- unlike the Pashtun nationalists -- do not support that kind of ethnic issue against a fellow Muslim country."

Senior Western diplomats in Kabul told "The New York Times" this week that Pakistan's security services are allowing Taliban fighters to operate training camps in Pakistan and cross back into Afghanistan to conduct terrorist attacks aimed at undermining presidential elections there in October.
"In the past, the Pakistani military saw Afghanistan only as a potential security threat or a potential security asset. Now, Pakistan's business community -- which is becoming more assertive -- is seeing Afghanistan as a major opportunity." -- analyst

Pakistan's army calls that allegation "ridiculous." Pakistan's UN Ambassador Munir Akram told the UN Security Council yesterday that his country has taken extraordinary efforts to safeguard its border with Afghanistan, including the deployment of 75,000 troops.

Rubin agrees with authorities in Islamabad who argue that Pakistan's military does not control many parts of the tribal regions near the border. But Rubin said there are other reasons Taliban militants are not being arrested in Pakistan.

"The Pakistani military is moving against Al-Qaeda, [but] they're not doing anything against the Taliban. Most of the Taliban activities are not in the tribal territories," Rubin said. "They are in the city of Quetta. They are in Balochistan. They are in areas that are firmly under the control of the Pakistan government. Therefore, Pakistan has no credibility. They've been supplied with information about the exact location of various major Taliban leaders. And they have done nothing. Instead, whenever there is pressure on [Pakistan] about the Taliban, they arrest more Al-Qaeda people -- meaning people from Arab countries or from small extremist groups. But they do not move against the Taliban."

Rubin said that Pakistan is not trying to undermine Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's government or create a new Taliban regime. But he believes that elements within the government or security services want to use Taliban militants for future leverage against pro-Indian officials in Kabul.

"They do not believe that the United States and the rest of the Western countries are going to stay in Afghanistan. They believe that it is quite possible -- maybe a year after the U.S. presidential election [in November] -- these countries will start drawing down their forces and abandon Afghanistan again," Rubin said. "And therefore, they believe it is inevitable that there will be another power struggle in Afghanistan in which various regional powers will try to position their allies within the government and within the society. They don't want to cut their ties to those who may be ready to defend their interest in Afghanistan when that struggle resumes again."

Rubin said the economic issues discussed during Karzai's two-day visit to Islamabad this week could eventually act as an important counterbalance to the policies of Pakistan's security services.

"In the past, the Pakistani military saw Afghanistan only as a potential security threat or a potential security asset. Now, Pakistan's business community -- which is becoming more assertive -- is seeing Afghanistan as a major opportunity," Rubin said. "They are starting to put forward the idea that a stable, reconstructed Afghanistan is strongly in Pakistan's interests because of the economic implications, regardless of the political coloration or ethnic composition of the government of the day in Kabul."

But Rubin concluded that Pakistan's security forces will continue to have the final word for now because there is no real public input into Pakistan's security policies and the military is not subject to any kind of civilian control or oversight.