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Pakistan: How Are Domestic Crises Impacting War Against Terrorism?

Mark Schneider (Courtesy Photo) September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is facing crisis from within and without his country. The governments of neighboring countries like Afghanistan and India are demanding that he do more to curb Islamic extremists operating in Pakistan. Meanwhile, he faces a domestic political crisis over his failed attempts to control the judiciary, his refusal to quit as head of Pakistan's Army before an October parliamentary vote on the next president, and from Islamists angry about the deadly storming of Islamabad's Red Mosque in July. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group think tank, about how these crises are impacting the war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Afghanistan has repeatedly alleged that elements within Pakistan's military and intelligence community help the Taliban in Afghanistan and turn a blind eye to Taliban camps within Pakistan. Do you agree? And if so, why do you think President Musharraf -- a key ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism -- would permit such support for the Taliban to continue?

Mark Schneider: Musharraf and the Pakistan military have a view that the direction of political events in Afghanistan are not desirable. They would like to see a government which is more directly responsive to their concerns and Pakistan's long-term interests. They see India having too much of a role. They are not pleased by [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's close relationship with India. They believe that in the end, the West will lose its interest and commitment to Afghanistan and that, over time, the Taliban will come back into power. They want that government, if not beholden to Pakistan, at the very least to be heavily influenced by Pakistan. So they continue to provide sanctuary despite all the internal political dynamics in Pakistan.

Pakistan's military, its intelligence arm -- the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency), and Musharraf continue to, in a sense, play both sides against the middle. They respond with some increasing action in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and the Northwest Province areas against some of the Taliban military buildups there -- but particularly the foreign buildups. They have been responsive against Al-Qaeda. They've gone after Uzbek and Tajik foreign groups that have been linked to both Taliban and Al-Qaeda. But they haven't gone after the major Taliban command-and-control centers in Quetta and Peshawar.

"The Taliban leadership is clearly somewhat unsettled by the signs that there may be political change inside Pakistan. There's no question that they would be uncomfortable with a government which is less controlled by the military." -- Mark Schneider, International Crisis Group

RFE/RL: How do you think the Taliban leadership views Pakistan's domestic political crises?

Schneider: The Taliban leadership is clearly somewhat unsettled by the signs that there may be political change inside Pakistan. There's no question that they would be uncomfortable with a government which is less controlled by the military. It's not just Musharraf. The Pakistan military and ISI were the ones who helped train and equip and work with the Taliban initially. So there is that strong relationship between the ISI and the Taliban -- even beyond the religious.

RFE/RL: Pakistan's political crises have raised questions about whether President Musharraf's government can remain in power much longer. What impact do you think new leadership in Pakistan might have upon the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Schneider: Whether or not there is a change to a democratic government in Pakistan, the Pakistan military will continue to have a significant degree of influence and power. And I suspect that [the Taliban] believe that will be sufficient to permit them to continue to operate. Their goal is not to participate in a democratic political process in Afghanistan. [The Taliban's] goal is to take over the government and return to an Islamist extreme fundamentalist control of Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Do you think Musharraf's government deserves the praise it has gotten from Washington about the efforts it has made in the war against terrorism?

Schneider: Thus far, the Pakistan military and Musharraf have not done what now U.S. law requires them to do -- which is to do everything in their power to close down the Pakistan sanctuaries. They have not gone after the major command-and-control centers in Quetta and Peshawar. That's really the key. It's one thing to say that it is difficult for them to get out to some mountain hideout to identify and destroy a Taliban military operation there. It is another thing when you have a major city, as you do in Quetta, where they are known to be located and do nothing.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) wants President Pervez Musharraf to do more to confront the Taliban in Pakistan. (CTK)

RFE/RL: The standoff between Musharraf and an increasingly independent-minded judiciary in Pakistan has added to Musharraf's domestic political woes. The Supreme Court in Islamabad is now considering a series of petitions seeking to have Musharraf eliminated as a candidate for president when parliament appoints the country's next leader in October. How do you see this situation playing out?

Schneider: Without any question, the independence of the Supreme Court in Pakistan has posed a major obstacle to Musharraf's and the Pakistan military's political plan -- to have him simply be reelected, to maintain his military role as chief of the army, and to maintain his presidency. And without any question, the current lawsuits pose a significant obstacle to Musharraf and the military's planning. Whether that will result in the Supreme Court deciding that Musharraf cannot do both -- that is, cannot stay in the military and run for the presidency. Whether the court will decide that even if he steps down from the military, he cannot run for the presidency for two years. There's a bar against military officers running for civilian offices for two years after they retire. Sometimes there is a waiver. But the court may decide that that's not possible in this instance.

In that case, the question is what the Pakistan military does. Do they accept that? Do they declare a state of emergency? There have been a significant number of people around Musharraf who have urged him to declare a state of emergency -- which would essentially reestablish military law, which is what he did when he first came into power in a military coup to take over the government.

RFE/RL: When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visited Pakistan on September 12, he publicly praised Islamabad's contribution to the war on terrorism. But there has been criticism in the United States that Pakistan isn't doing enough to battle religious extremism. Does this send mixed messages to Islamabad about the importance of cracking down on Taliban fighters within Pakistan?

Schneider: There's been a rising amount of criticism in the United States, particularly in the Congress, that Musharraf and Pakistan have not done what they promised when they signed an agreement with Secretary [of State Colin] Powell some five years ago -- which is to go after the Taliban insurgency, to close it down, to close down its command-and-control centers and its sanctuaries. As a result, the Congress this year for the first time has passed very stiff conditionality language saying, "We're conditioning any further military assistance on your doing that." And [U.S.] President [George W. Bush] has to certify that Pakistan's government is, in fact, taking significant action to close down sanctuaries. Otherwise, [Bush] is barred from providing assistance.

"Publicly, clearly, [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte] is saying that Musharraf is still an ally in the war against terrorism and is not putting pressure on publicly. Hopefully, privately, the message was different." -- Mark Schneider, ICG

I would assume that the message from Deputy Secretary Negroponte was that this legislation has now been signed into law and that there is other legislation coming down the pike that would effect additional flows of assistance to Pakistan if nothing is done. If he wants to continue to receive U.S. support, he's going to have to do that. One doesn't know whether Negroponte is saying, "I'm sorry to tell you," or whether he is saying, "This is the law. You have to do it." Publicly, clearly, he is saying that Musharraf is still an ally in the war against terrorism and is not putting pressure on publicly. Hopefully, privately, the message was different.

RFE/RL: Earlier this year, as the U.S. National Intelligence Director, Negroponte testified to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee that it is necessary for Pakistan to do more to eliminate safe havens for the Taliban and other extremists within Pakistan's tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. On September 12 in Islamabad, he said Pakistan was at a "critical juncture in history" and has the opportunity "to forge ahead as a vibrant, moderate, successful, and democratic Muslim nation." Does this indicate a tougher U.S. position toward Musharraf on the issues of terrorism and democracy?

Schneider: There have been some indications that [Negroponte] has made it clear that the past attitude and actions of the Pakistan government towards the Taliban are no longer acceptable. It's not clear whether or not what he said privately with respect to opening up the political process and allowing the secular democratic parties freedom to participate in the upcoming elections.

RFE/RL: What impact do you think increased pressure from Washington on Islamabad could have upon the situation in Afghanistan?

Schneider: One would hope that the consequences of increasing pressures on Musharraf and the Pakistan government to restrict the freedom of movement of the Taliban forces -- denying it sanctuary in Pakistan -- would have some impact on making the Taliban's life more difficult. How that will play itself out in the long term is still not clear. In the short term, it probably will have some impact in making it more difficult for the Taliban forces to move around and to plan their operations. It is unlikely to be a strategic change. It's unlikely to weaken them significantly unless the U.S. places more pressure on Musharraf and they, in fact, do take more serious actions to close down the Taliban command and control centers and to cut off the flow of weapons and stopping the Taliban recruitment processes in the mosques of Pakistan.