March 9, 2010 11:06 pm

US doubts Islamabad’s will to pursue militants

Robert Gates on a visit to troops in Afghanistan©AFP

On a visit to Afghanistan, Robert Gates, US defence secretary, told troops in Kandahar that they would soon be part of a “decisive” phase in the war as Nato forces intensified their attacks on the Taliban. He is seen here addressing troops from the 17th Infantry Regiment on Tuesday in Kandahar

When Pakistani officials announced last month they had detained the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command, their action raised a crucial question: is Islamabad now ready to take on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as the US has long demanded?

Since that arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who also served as the Taliban’s military chief, Pakistani officials have reported the detention of four other named Taliban leaders and of a further four to five yet to be named. That follows a military offensive late last year in the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of south Waziristan. But although the Obama administration publicly praises Islamabad for increasing co-operation, doubts remain about the nature of the shift, as well as the motives for it.

“They have for years worked with us against al-Qaeda and they clearly recognise the dangers they themselves face from organisations like the Pakistani Taliban,” says one US official. “Now they’re doing more against the Afghan Taliban too, for very pragmatic reasons. At the same time, they haven’t cut every tie to every militant outfit in the region.”

Observers think it too early to conclude Pakistan’s military has decided to abandon the Taliban – a group it all but formed in the 1990s. Amid questions about the circumstances of Mullah Baradar’s detention, Richard Holbrooke, the US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Financial Times last week he was “agnostic” as to whether there had really been a change in Pakistani policy.

Washington is used to fluctuating Pakistani co-operation in the fight against Islamist militants. Peaks, such as the 2003 detention of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-styled architect of the September 11 attacks, alternate with long troughs in which US officials implore Islamabad to step up the fight.

Recent months have seen a series of visiting American dignitaries make such requests, including Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, and Robert Gates, defence secretary, against a backdrop of about $2bn a year in US military assistance to Pakistan and $1.5bn in civilian aid annually.

“The Pakistanis are acting in line with their interests. They’ve seen the American commitment in Afghanistan rise [with President Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops] and they understand that it’s less acceptable than ever to have the leadership of the Afghan Taliban running loose in their country,” says the US official, who argues Pakistan’s actions also potentially increase its influence “when it comes to a settlement in Afghanistan”.

As Hamid Karzai, Afghan president, prepares to visit Pakistan, the endgame in Afghanistan is rising up the agenda. After a record western troop casualties in the past year, the US has signalled that a pacified Taliban could be a future mainstream political player in the country.

Islamabad is manoeuvring for influence in Afghanistan against its arch-rival India before a US troop drawdown scheduled to begin in July 2011. Mr Karzai is to visit Pakistan in the next few days to discuss closer co-operation.

“The recent arrests could be meant to demonstrate Pakistan’s ability to nab key Taliban leaders, hold them, and then bring this group to the negotiating table,” said a western diplomat in Islamabad. “Given Pakistan’s interests and history versus India, I simply can’t buy the view that Islamabad has finally turned against the Taliban and cut off all its ties”.

Teresita Schaffer, head of the south Asia programme at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, emphasises the enduring importance for Islamabad of ties to the militants. “For the Pakistan military the primary purpose is to keep Pakistan at the centre of any negotiations involving the Taliban,” she says. “Keeping the Taliban in the game is important for Pakistan.”

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