Pakistan Watches As U.S. Reviews Afghan Strategy

The Obama administration's strategy review of the Afghanistan war is prompting some concern in Pakistan. Analysts and observers see both opportunity and danger in a U.S. policy that would direct more operations to Pakistan.

President Obama has expressed doubts about whether more American troops could turn the protracted conflict in Afghanistan into a winnable war. Some Pakistanis hear in that a prelude to a pullout.

"I'm worried about the implications of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan," says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and political commentator. He says a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would wipe out all the gains the Pakistanis have made against the militants in the past several months.

"If the Taliban in Afghanistan gets strong, the Taliban in Pakistan gets strong," Hoodbhoy says. "This encouragement will enable them to extend their influence into the cities. We are then in for suicide bombings, for the end of girls' education in large parts of the country, and that's going to be a disaster."

An ever bigger disaster, according to retired Gen. Talat Masood, would be a move by the United States to unilaterally broaden its strikes against Afghan Taliban leaders inside Pakistan.

An unconfirmed report in The Sunday Times of London says the U.S. has threatened to extend airstrikes to the city of Quetta, the capital of the southern province of Baluchistan, where U.S. officials believe the Taliban leadership is based.

"I think there are very serious implications of any violation of Baluchistan territory by the United States in pursuit of Taliban or anyone," Masood says. "I think that has to be left to the Pakistani military. And they should try to develop confidence between the two militaries so that they can take action."

Earlier this year, there was optimism that Pakistan was more aggressively battling its homegrown Taliban when the Pakistani army took the fight to the militants in Swat Valley.

U.S. officials remain suspicious that elements inside Pakistan's intelligence and defense agencies secretly support Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and others known collectively as the Quetta Shura.

But retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah says it is absurd to think that the leaders of the Afghan Taliban are still clustered in Quetta eight years after the start of the Afghan war.

"It's like a man looking for a black cat in a dark room on a dark night," Shah says. "The problem is, the cat's not there."

Masood says Pakistan's military establishment was perhaps not as eager to find and arrest the Taliban high command as the Americans would have liked:

"Pakistan is taking a long-term view and saying that these elements in Afghanistan are not going to go away. We had to live with them. We cannot open a broad front against all hostile forces that are operating against America for the sake of America. It is for the Americans to adjust their policies and not scapegoat Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan."

Shah argues for more U.S. military aid to Pakistan, particularly Predator drones. The Americans have deployed the unmanned aircraft in dozens of attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan over the past couple of years.

Their use deeply angered the Pakistani public, which views them as a violation of sovereignty. But criticism became more muted this summer after a U.S. drone attack that killed Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who had dispatched suicide bombers across Pakistan.

"If there is a certain portion of drones under the Pakistan army," Shah says, "then this war can be very effectively fought and won. That is the only formula."

He warns that any escalation in U.S. drone attacks over Pakistan would only worsen America's image in Pakistan.

"If the Americans insist on activities doing by themselves, they are moving in the wrong direction," Shah says. "And the results really cannot be even foreseen."

He adds that the United States would end up creating more problems than the ones it is trying to treat.



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