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Alliance's Rise Catches Pakistan Off-Guard

Alliance's Rise Catches Pakistan Off-Guard

Author: Susan B. Glasser and Kamran Khan
Publication: Washington Post
Date: November 21, 2001

'Strategic Debacle' Leaves Islamabad With Little Influence Over Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 20 -- More than a week after the Taliban retreat from the Afghan capital of Kabul and other cities, Pakistan is reeling from the rout of the strict Islamic militia it helped create.

Pakistan remains the only country in the world that still recognizes the Taliban and is unwilling to sever those ties. Pakistan also is not on speaking terms with the Northern Alliance, which now controls most of Afghanistan.

According to high-ranking political, military and diplomatic officials, Pakistan has seen its influence in Afghanistan evaporate as the future of the country is being plotted by the United Nations and the Northern Alliance, among others. Unable to wield power in Afghan affairs, Pakistan fears that it is now sandwiched between two hostile countries: India to the east and Afghanistan to the west. Pakistan's military is on high alert, fearing trouble and instability along the 1,500-mile border it shares with Afghanistan.

Although Pakistan enlisted as a key ally in the U.S.-led coalition to oust the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even top officials in President Pervez Musharraf's government have expressed alarm in recent days at the outcome of the coalition's efforts. Television screens here are flashing pictures of angry Afghans shouting "Death to Pakistan!" and Pakistan's regional rivals are advising the new rulers of Kabul. One senior Pakistani Foreign Ministry official pronounced his country's policy "a strategic debacle."

A top military official called the situation a "quagmire" for Pakistan, while several other senior government figures spoke bitterly in interviews of what they called a U.S. promise to keep the Northern Alliance out of Kabul -- a promise that was not kept.

The Northern Alliance, made up of Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnic groups in the northern part of Afghanistan, grew out of the mujaheddin who fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. After the Soviet pullout, the guerrillas fell into a civil war. Pakistan nurtured and supported the Taliban, whose members are mostly from the large Pashtun ethnic group in the south, in the mid-1990s. Pakistani officials saw the Taliban as a counterweight to the fractious, chaotic rule from 1992 to 1996 of the Kabul government, whose members are now largely back in control of the country.

Despite the enmity, Pakistan has signaled a willingness to open backdoor communications with the Northern Alliance through Turkey and Iran, both of which supported the alliance during its five-year battle to oust the Taliban. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, said in an interview that "yes, they are reaching out to the Northern Alliance."

Pakistani sources said top Foreign Ministry officials have also told Chamberlin they would welcome any U.S. efforts to help bridge the gap. Musharraf had talks with Iranian officials in Tehran earlier this month on his way to the United Nations, and then met with President Mohammad Khatami in New York. An Iranian official visited Musharraf in Islamabad last week. Musharraf also met with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in Istanbul last week.

Officially, Pakistan supports the creation of a "broad-based, multi-ethnic government" for Afghanistan and says the Northern Alliance occupation of Kabul should be replaced by an international peacekeeping force.

But Pakistan's diplomatic contortions in recent days suggest how tentative and confused the government's policy has become.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar told reporters that Pakistan would allow the Taliban's embassy here to remain open. But he also offered this confusing formula: Pakistan has not decided on the "de-recognition of the Taliban government," but that "does not mean that we continue to recognize it." Today, the Foreign Ministry spokesman announced the closure of two remaining Taliban consulates in the cities of Peshawar and Quetta, while insisting there have been no direct contacts between Islamabad and the Northern Alliance.

On Monday, Musharraf proclaimed vindication for his decision to join the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition. Pakistan is now on the world's "center stage," he told local leaders. "Our policy will prove useful for the country, and everyone will benefit from it," he said.

But Musharraf's government was unprepared for the consequences of ousting the Taliban, according to several senior government officials and political analysts here. A week after the Taliban fled major cities in Afghanistan, a new policy toward Afghanistan has yet to emerge.

"Pakistan has an important role to play in shaping the future of Afghanistan, but we are losing that role by virtue of indecision," said Mushahid Hussain, a member of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's cabinet, now a commentator here. "We should recognize the new realities in the region, but instead our policy is reactive. Decisions are being made on the battlefield and not around the conference table."

A senior Foreign Ministry official said: "The sheer pace of events jolted each one of us here last week. It seemed that Taliban settled scores with Pakistan by offering Kabul to the Northern Alliance on a silver platter. The Taliban knew how much Islamabad would hate to see Northern Alliance leaders taking full control of the Afghan capital."

"The very fact that people such as Abdullah and General Fahim have assumed power in Kabul is enough to push Pakistan into a strategic quagmire," added a senior Pakistani military official, referring to the Northern Alliance's foreign minister and top military leader. "To our displeasure, the Northern Alliance will now remain a grim reality in Kabul."

Several top officials in Musharraf's government privately questioned whether the Bush administration had tried hard enough to prevent the Northern Alliance from taking Kabul.

"The U.S. has rewarded its most formidable ally by allowing its sworn enemies to capture the seat of power in Afghanistan," said another senior military officer, who added pointedly, "What actually happened in Kabul was opposite to what President Bush had promised to General Musharraf."

Nonetheless, critics also point to the failure of Pakistan's own Afghanistan policy, which for years backed the Taliban militia.

"The Americans never promised us a rose garden. We helped the Americans to oust the Taliban, so we shouldn't be surprised when the Taliban's principal opponents -- that is, the Northern Alliance -- are in a better position," Hussain said. "We should stop carping about it. We should recognize that the government in Afghanistan has changed, and we helped change the status quo."

But so far, Pakistan has been unable to even withdraw diplomatic recognition from the Taliban. "It's time," said Chamberlin, the U.S. ambassador. "This is the Taliban really on the skids, and it's my personal view that they should definitively sever their relationship with the Taliban. At this point, it's really a pro forma thing."

While the political situation remains muddled, the Taliban's collapse has also reshaped Pakistan's military strategy, according to interviews with several top officials.

The current crisis along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is "most unique in nature," as one official put it, because never before has the security situation -- not even during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 -- warranted extensive deployment of army regulars, heavy artillery and tanks near the Afghan border.

But now, officials said, about 40,000 regular troops of the Pakistani army, 65,000 paramilitary troops and 35,000 frontier police and conscripts have been put on the highest alert to confront any emergency near the border.

"Before yesterday, Pakistan's military strategy and most doctrines almost exclusively focused on an Indian threat to Pakistan's security," a senior official said. "The normal security situation on the western borders allowed us to allocate most of our military resources to the eastern borders."

Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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