The way Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf reads the geopolitical tea leaves in the Middle East and South Asia is not to our liking — but hardly surprising. Political Science 101 shows a U.S. Congress, controlled by the Democrats, not prepared to see the Iraq conflict through to victory — i.e., a free democratic country able to sustain and defend itself without the U.S. military.
In fact, Mr. Musharraf, like the rest of the world, noted that Hillary Clinton, her party’s early front-runner for the White House, who voted for the Iraqi war, now calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq to begin in 90 days. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls Iraq “the worst foreign policy mistake in American history” as senators prepare legislation that would revoke authorization for the war.
Mr. Musharraf can also see two-thirds of the American people oppose the war. The corollary is what happens in Afghanistan if the U.S. does not prevail in Iraq. He began hedging his bets with a controversial deal last Sept. 5 with tribal leaders in North Waziristan, a Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the Afghan border. Tribal elders, who are Muslim fundamentalists and pro-Taliban, guaranteed Taliban guerrillas would be held in check and not allowed to cross into Afghanistan.
Skeptical, NATO and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan decided to give Mr. Musharraf the benefit of the doubt. Today, there is no doubt. Both North and South Waziristan are under virtual Taliban control and attacks into Afghanistan have trebled. Even more worrisome, Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency received a wink and a nod from Mr. Musharraf to assist “moderate” Taliban elements in their campaign to wrest control from President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
On Feb. 19, the New York Times, in a Page One article about al Qaeda’s revival in Pakistan, reported U.S. intelligence has spotted small al Qaeda training camps in North Waziristan. That this tribal area was entirely in Taliban and al Qaeda hands was originally reported in this space in October 2005 following this reporter’s unauthorized trip there.
Mohammad Aurakzai, the Musharraf-appointed governor of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province (NWFP), described Taliban as waging “a war of liberation” against foreign troops occupying Afghanistan. Local populations, he added, are “increasingly supporting Taliban.”
Reached by satellite phone, Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Rahim, responsible for southern Helmand Province, told Reuters, “As the weather becomes warm and leaves turn green, our 10,000 fighters will unleash bloody attacks on the foreign forces commanded by the Americans.”
ISI was Taliban’s principal support when it launched an offensive in 1992 to seize control of a country torn by multiple warring factions ever since defeated Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Taliban declared victory in 1996 — and imposed a medieval theocracy on almost 30 million people while embracing Osama bin Laden who then set up a score of al Qaeda training camps. Following the attacks on America of September 11, 2001, U.S. forces collapsed the whole Taliban-al Qaeda edifice, which ended with the battle of Tora Bora, and bin Laden’s escape to Pakistan.
Mr. Musharraf cordially loathes Mr. Karzai. When President Bush, hoping for reconciliation, had them both to dinner at the White House last Sept. 28, they avoided each other’s gaze and declined to shake hands. It has been downhill since then, each side hurling insults at the other.
Mr. Karzai’s writ doesn’t extend much beyond Kabul. His government is riddled with corruption and Afghanistan is fast becoming a narco-state (producing last year a record 6,700 tons of opium poppy, enough to make about 670 tons of pure heroin), fertile ground for Taliban successes. And Mr. Karzai’s warm relationship with India — “our most cherished partner” — further exacerbates relations with Pakistan.
Mr. Musharraf is constantly criticized in his own media for throwing in his lot with the U.S. after September 11. He had little choice. President Bush gave him none. But in the wake of the U.S. fiasco in Iraq, politico-religious extremists are steadily gaining ground in what is a military-ruled, “guided democracy.”
The banned militant sectarian Sunni terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, involved in most terrorist attacks in Pakistan since September 11, is forming new cells at the district and provincial levels throughout the country. Its leaders fought in Afghanistan and the cadres and recruits came from madrassas (Koranic schools) throughout the country.
In a major speech last week, Mr. Bush rang a loud Afghan alarm bell coupled with a ringing endorsement of Mr. Musharraf . He also called on NATO member states to supply more troops and to cease and desist restricting their roles and missions in the field. France, Spain and Italy declined additional troops and Italy’s center-left coalition was forced to resign over the controversy.
NATO’s bean counters estimate the daily cost of keeping one soldier in Afghanistan at $4,000. There are now 35,000 troops in Afghanistan under NATO command, including 13,000 Americans. Another 9,000 U.S. troops operate independently of NATO on counterterrorism and Afghan army training missions. And following a brief visit to Kabul, Defense Secretary Bob Gates diverted the 173rd Airborne Brigade slated for Iraq to Afghanistan and ordered a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division to stay another four months.
Meanwhile, public and political support for a close U.S.-Pakistan partnership is rapidly evaporating in a Muslim country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population — and a nuclear arsenal. Pakistani extremists are making their views known with suicide bombings in major cities, including Islamabad, and rocket and mortar attacks on mosques.
By Mr. Musharraf’s own reckoning, there are about 1.6 million people willing to push extremist agendas through acts of violence — or 1 percent of the population.
Pakistan’s 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan is more porous than the U.S.-Mexican frontier. The Pakistan army flew reporters to North Waziristan to meet with tribal elders last week, but they didn’t show up.
In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Anthony H. Cordesman said, “No one can return from visiting the front in Afghanistan without realizing there is a very real risk that the U.S. and NATO could lose their war with al Qaeda, the Taliban and the other Islamist movements fighting the Afghan government. We are still winning tactically, but we may well be losing strategically.”
Mr. Cordesman, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ renowned strategic thinker, added, “Winning will take more resources, more forces, more patience, and at least 5-10 more years of persistent effort.”
In the light of the congressional debates over Iraq, and the reticence of America’s NATO allies to provide more troops for Afghanistan, Mr. Musharraf and his ISI analysts have concluded the West’s will to win won’t last the required five to 10 years. Hence, the Pakistani leader’s belief, denials notwithstanding, that a “moderate” Taliban regime in Kabul is a safer strategic bet.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.