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Published: Monday, 10/18/2010

Kashmir influences Pakistan's stance on Taliban

Pakistan's recent temporary closing of a key border crossing to convoys delivering supplies to NATO troops at war in Afghanistan elicited strong opinions among people in Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora. The tone of conversations on the Internet indicates a groundswell of resentment against the United States and its NATO allies.

The cause of this latest tiff between the United States and Pakistan was the killing of three Pakistani soldiers by a U.S. pilotless drone aircraft inside Pakistan. Although the United States apologized for the mistake, it unleashed pent-up frustration and resentment among Pakistanis.

The U.S. drones are meant to target Taliban fighters in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, as often happens, there are unavoidable civilian casualties that further fuel anger in Pakistan.

With each passing day, and with the conflict spiraling out of control, an increasing number of Pakistanis feel as if their country is being dragged into a war in which the very fabric of the society is being irreparably harmed. Call it huge collateral damage.

Pakistan has been paying the price for outside interventions in Afghanistan for a long time. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pakistan became a frontline state by providing sanctuaries and training camps to Afghan mujahideen. As a result, the border area of Pakistan, including towns and cities, bore the brunt of Soviet retaliation.

Now, as then, Pakistan is dragged into a conflict in which it had no direct national interest. Car and suicide bombings against government and military targets as well as ethnic and religious minorities - most often carried out by the Pakistani Taliban - have become a daily occurrence.

The question is often asked: Why is Pakistan reluctant to go after the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership hiding in border areas of Pakistan? If Pakistan did its part, the reasoning goes, the United States would not have to deploy drones against those elements.

The answer lies in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the region, which is claimed by both governments. Kashmir, as unfinished business left over from the partition of India, remains deeply embedded in the Pakistani psyche.

Pakistan's army is designed to combat India. It is not geared, physically or psychologically, to fight a mountain war against its own people.

Pakistan will not have any sway in postwar Afghanistan if a strong nationalist government rules Kabul. That government will be aligned, as is the current government of President Hamid Karzai, with India. That would not be the case in a Taliban-run Afghanistan.

There have been negotiations between the Taliban and Mr. Karzai's government. These are carried out with the tacit approval of the United States. These negotiations are aimed at bringing the Taliban into the government, thus removing the need for a protracted conflict.

Moderate Taliban may be willing to accept a negotiated settlement. But the hard core, under the influence of the former head of the Afghan government Mullah Muhammad Omar and their spiritual godfather. al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, would not want anything short of total U.S. withdrawal and the dismantling of the Karzai government.

So it is in Pakistan's long-term strategic interests to keep the Taliban card viable, as the United States looks desperately for an exit strategy.

From time immemorial, landlocked Afghanistan has relied on trade and commerce coming from Pakistan through various mountain passes. The most famous and widely used is the Khyber Pass, which connects the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar with Jalalabad and Kabul in Afghanistan. Forty-five percent of American and NATO supplies pass along this route.

Pakistanis realize that their government is beholden to American interests in the region. The closure of the border was a short-lived act of bravado by Islamabad.

A government that depends on the largesse of American aid can ill afford to show independence. The border was reopened after 10 days.

The fates of Pakistan and Afghanistan are intertwined. Any solution in Afghanistan has to take the interests of Pakistan into consideration.

Kashmir is central to a comprehensive peace in the region. But as India emerges as a regional economic and military power, America will not force the issue.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net.



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