Recent strong statements by the U.S. and Britain about possible retaliation against the Taliban government for not handing over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden have convinced many in Pakistan, and around the world, that military strikes against Afghanistan are imminent. The Pakistani government appears exasperated that the Taliban has not taken Islamabad's advice to negotiate with Washington and perhaps avoid military retaliation.
Islamabad, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan has tried to be the good broker in political relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban government.
The Taliban has admitted that the chief suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks against the U.S. -- Osama bin Laden -- is in Afghanistan. And the Taliban has repeatedly said it will not hand him over to the U.S.
In turn, Washington has warned that it will treat as an enemy those who harbor or give support to terrorists, and some sort of U.S.-led military strike against Afghanistan is believed to be imminent.
Pakistan, while joining the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism, has not broken off diplomatic ties with the Taliban. Islamabad says it wants to keep a channel of communication open between the isolated Taliban regime and the rest of the world.
Pakistan has sent two missions in recent weeks to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in an attempt to persuade the Taliban to negotiate with the United States for the surrender of bin Laden. But none of Pakistan's appeals seems to have borne fruit. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appeared to admit that recently when he agreed with a journalist's comment that the Taliban's days seem numbered.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Muhammad Khan says his government will maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban because such ties are necessary to arrange humanitarian aid. The aid will take the form of massive food shipments to the country in an effort to avert the famine that relief agencies warn will soon affect millions of Afghans.
Khan says Pakistan is eager to see that food aid flows into Afghanistan in order to prevent a mass exodus of Afghans over the border into Pakistan:
"Pakistan has conveyed to the Taliban what the situation is, what the dangers are, and what the international community is expecting from them. We have also conveyed to them that they do not have much time. They have to take decisions. They are an independent government. We only hope they will take decisions in the best interests of Afghanistan and the Afghan people. But we have done our duty as a friend and as a neighbor."
Khan says the Taliban has not changed its position on negotiating with the U.S. about bin Laden and that Pakistan has no plans for a fresh initiative to try to convince the Taliban to do so. But he said Pakistan has not abandoned its efforts to find a peaceful solution to the standoff:
"There is no effort which is in the pipeline, so to say, but these efforts can be made on the spur of the moment because the situation is evolving, the situation is serious, the situation is moving fast. And therefore you don't have to put efforts into pipelines and anticipate them very many days ahead of time. So they can materialize. They can take shape on the spur of the moment. But at present, I do not have any information about any effort which may be in the cards [being planned]."
Pakistan is still reluctant to give its support to the newly forged coalition between former Afghan King Zahir (Zahir Shah), exiled from his country for 28 years, and the Northern Alliance opposition, which has been battling the Taliban since 1996.
Pakistan does not believe it can trust the Northern Alliance, which is mainly composed of former Pakistan-backed guerrillas who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s but who were abandoned in favor of the Taliban in the 1990s.
Pakistan has marginalized efforts by Zahir Shah to return to Afghanistan's political stage for the last two decades and would not automatically expect friendly relations should he return to power in Kabul.
Khan says Pakistan is not championing any particular group to take power in Kabul and supports UN efforts to bring peace to the country:
"Pakistan is not in the game of placing one group, one person, one clique or the other in Kabul. We are convinced -- and our conviction has been reinforced over the years as a neighbor of Afghanistan -- that only a government that is acceptable to all Afghans can bring peace and stability in that country, which is not just in the interest of Afghanistan people but also in the wider interests of Pakistan and the region."
Khan warns that any efforts by outsiders to impose a government on the people of Afghanistan are, in the end, doomed.