PRAGUE, March 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan say President Bush's first visit to South Asia appears to have aggravated relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than enhanced their cooperation on counterterrorism.
The dispute also is becoming linked to competition in South Asia between Pakistan and India. Islamabad now accuses Afghanistan of interfering in Pakistan's southern province of Balochistan.
Barnett Rubin, director of studies and New York University's Center for International Cooperation, tells RFE/RL that the Bush administration seems oblivious to historic rivalries between Kabul and Islamabad -- instead acting as if the only issue in the region is the war on terrorism.
Stirring Up Bad Feelings
"I'm afraid the net result of American diplomacy in the region is to have aggravated the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which is very tragic, because the United States will not be able to accomplish its goals of neutralizing the bases of Taliban and Al-Qaeda and stabilizing the region unless these two countries are put on a path that will enable them to cooperate," Rubin said.
Rubin says the escalation of criticism between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is clearly linked to Bush's visits to Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi.
"As they saw President Bush coming, they started to compete very openly to show that the other one was a less reliable ally for the United States," he said. "So President Karzai released to the press -- both directly and through his intelligence chief -- information that they claimed to have about Taliban bases and support networks inside Pakistan, including networks for launching suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Then General Musharraf, on the eve of President Bush's visit, announced that this was all humbug and nonsense. And then after President Bush left, he said the President Karzai was totally oblivious to what was happening in his own country."
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," says Bush's remarks during his visit to Islamabad suggest Pakistan may be losing Washington's confidence.
U.S. Not Satisfied With Pakistani Effort?
"The Americans were quite tough on Pakistan regarding this issue of the Taliban," Rashid said. "And the fact that President Bush had to [speak] rhetorically in his press conference -- that he had come to Islamabad to see whether Musharraf was still committed to the war on terrorism -- I think that spoke a great deal about the fact that Americans do have doubts about that (eds: Musharraf's commitment) and are wondering what Pakistan is doing about the long list of Taliban leaders who are apparently living in Pakistan."
Immediately after Bush's return to Washington, the Pentagon issued a statement saying it appreciates the role Pakistan is playing in the war against terrorism. But Rashid says follow-up visits to Islamabad and Kabul by U.S. Central Command Chief General John Abizaid show the United States is concerned about a Taliban resurgence in southern Afghanistan. Kabul says the problem is a result of cross-border infiltrations by militants hiding in Pakistan's tribal regions.
Christina Lamb is the author of "The Sewing Circles Of Herat" and a correspondent for the "Sunday Times." She says General Abizaid's visit has reinforced the notion that cracks are emerging in relations between Washington and Islamabad:
"His visit is an indication that the West is starting to get suspicious of Pakistan and [is] rather fed up with Musharraf saying all the time that there isn't this problem [of Taliban sheltering in Pakistan," Lamb said. "The Americans] need to now see some actual concrete action and results. We're never going to see peace in Afghanistan as long as there is this problem of people coming over the border."
Lamb tells RFE/RL that Kabul's complaints of pro-Taliban fighters crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan to carry out terrorist attacks appear credible: "I myself have been in Afghan prisons and spoken with Pakistani prisoners," she said.
"Some of the recent suicide bombings [in Afghanistan] have been [carried out by] Pakistanis," she said. "And also, I've spent time in the eastern parts of Afghanistan with some of the American troops there in the border areas. They've been very frustrated because they are targeted by people coming across the border from Pakistan and they can't do anything because those people come over, attack them, and then run back across into their safe havens."
Experts generally agree that Pakistan has focused its counterterrorism operations on foreign Arab militants or Al-Qaeda fighters. They note that the top six Al-Qaeda leaders captured since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were all detained in residential areas of Pakistani cities.
Some observers allege that elements within Pakistan's security and intelligence community have turned a blind eye to Taliban militants because they want to use the Taliban to manipulate future events within Afghanistan.
Lamb says there is no conclusive evidence that Musharraf personally supports the idea of using Taliban militants as a tool to achieve foreign-policy goals in Afghanistan.
"It's difficult to know, really, what side Musharraf is on -- whether he really is genuinely committed to the war on terror," she said. "It may be that he is trying his best but there are people that are not conforming to his orders. Or it may be that he is saying one thing to the Americans and actually doing something different."
Rashid and Rubin agree that the dispute also is becoming linked to competition in South Asia between Pakistan and India. They note that Islamabad now accuses Afghanistan of interfering in Pakistan's southern province of Balochistan -- allegedly allowing New Delhi to support a separatist insurgency there through the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad.
Islamabad also has begun to accuse Kabul of failing to stop Al-Qaeda militants it says are crossing the border from Afghanistan to stir up trouble in Pashtun tribal border regions of the Northwest Frontier Province like North Waziristan.