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Next week when President Obama delivers his address on Afghanistan, you can bet he's going to spend some time talking about Pakistan too. That country is a crucial U.S. ally in the region, and people there are anxious to find out what Mr. Obama's next steps will be.
Pakistanis worry that any increase in U.S. troops would widen the war. At the same time, many are eager to see an American commitment robust enough to convince the Taliban to sit down and talk.
From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE McCARTHY: In Pakistan, it seems no discussion of Washington's conduct in Afghanistan is complete without some version of this testy question and answer.
Mr. NAJAM SETHI (Editor in Chief, Daily Times): You had 10 years and what have you done? Nothing.
McCARTHY: Editor in chief of the Lahore-based Daily Times Najam Sethi.
Mr. SETHI: Okay. So you've been busy in Iraq. But then when you know when you get into projects like this, you can't say, oh, we will be busy somewhere else.
McCARTHY: Retired Brigadier Javed Hussain says the Americans are stuck in a protracted war next door because, like the Soviets before them, they failed to secure the Afghan-Pakistan border, which allowed the Taliban to escape into Pakistan and regroup.
Brigadier JAVED HUSSAIN (Retired, U.S. Army): The only option that the Americans have now is to adopt an offensive strategy that will aim at defeating the Taliban within a year.
McCARTHY: Brigadier Hussain says that would likely require thousands more troops than those contemplated by even the most hawkish U.S. recommendations.
Brig. HUSSAIN: Whether it takes 100,000 troops or whatever, finish it off and prove history is wrong that invaders in Afghanistan will always fail. Unless you eliminate the Taliban, you will never win.
McCARTHY: The former chief secretary of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province Khalid Aziz says the U.S. is unlikely to make much headway either in nation building or counterinsurgency over the course of the next year. He says even the 40,000 additional troops requested by U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal wouldn't turn things around.
Mr. KHALID AZIZ (Former Chief Secretary, North-West Frontier Province): To me, it looks like a strike, so I would be very worried if I were President Obama to move forward with that.
McCARTHY: But Aziz says regardless of its size, any surge in U.S. troops magnifies problems for Pakistan. He says even a modest contingent of 12,000 troops deployed in the southern region near Kandahar would push the violence in Afghanistan over the porous border into Baluchistan, Pakistan's southwest province. It's already a hotspot of Afghan refugees, local separatists and Taliban.
Aziz says if more militants sought protection inside Baluchistan, the smoldering province could burst into flames.
Mr. AZIZ: So the war expands into Pakistan. And if it expands into Pakistan, my fear is that some of these people might start getting onto Karachi and the port. If that begins to happen, then their whole trail starts destabilizing the neighborhood wherever they move.
McCARTHY: While a surge of U.S. troops unsettles Pakistan, conversely so does the prospect of a quick American withdrawal.
Retired diplomat Tariq Fatemi says any decision to leave Afghanistan is potentially destabilizing.
Mr. TARIQ FATEMI (Political Analyst): The minute the Americans are seen to have now reached the point where they have started packing, even though the packing process could take 18 months, it will be a different ballgame. And even the inclination on the part of the Taliban to play ball will be immediately lessened.
McCARTHY: The widely held view here is that only a political settlement will resolve the Afghan morass. Khalid Aziz says it is time to begin to engage and perhaps confine the militants through talks.
Mr. AZIZ: Because after all, they're also human beings. They are also thinking of a future. They cannot be fighting all their life.
McCARTHY: Aziz says in the absence of any political settlement, a U.S. pullout would spell civil war inside Afghanistan and disaster for Pakistan, as extremists infiltrate the borders.
Mr. AZIZ: Pakistan would be left with these nutcases to face. If you are going to be left with them, how do you coexist with them?
McCARTHY: Aziz says you coexist by being a good neighbor, hence Pakistan's longstanding reluctance to alienate the Afghan Taliban.
Parliamentarian of the ruling Peoples Party Farahnaz Ispahani acknowledges that the country shares longstanding ties with the Taliban that she says should be exploited by the United States.
Ms. FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI (Member, Peoples Party): Those relationships exist. So why not allow us to play the role of bridge between two sides which have very little confidence in each other?
McCARTHY: Ispahani says Pakistan must be involved in any political settlement in Afghanistan because whatever decision the United States makes, she says, Pakistan will have to live with it.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.