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Outside View: Jockeying for influence

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by Lawrence Sellin
Helsinki, Finland (UPI) Dec 18, 2009
The Obama administration's decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 18 months after the start of the surge has already begun to bear fruit, but perhaps not in a way that was intended.

The strongest Taliban warrior in Afghanistan, Siraj Haqqani, whose fighters pose the biggest threat to U.S. forces, remains protected by Pakistan in a sanctuary in North Waziristan.

Jane Perlez of The New York Times reports that requests by the United States to crack down on the Afghan Haqqani Taliban have been rebuffed because Pakistan views it as contrary to its long-term interests in Afghanistan beyond the timetable of U.S. President Barack Obama's surge.

As reported, Pakistan has little faith in the surge strategy and it sees a need to position itself for a regional realignment in Afghanistan once U.S. forces leave. Pakistan considers the Haqqani group vital to its interests in the jostling for influence that will pit Pakistan, India, Russia, China and Iran against one another in the post-American Afghanistan. It is believed that the Haqqani Taliban controls Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces and has a strong presence in Ghazni, Logar and Wardak provinces. Maintaining support for the Haqqani group provides the needed leverage in Afghanistan as Pakistan's military and political surrogate.

Pakistan continues to demonstrate a reluctance to clamp down of the Quetta shura of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar for the same reasons. The Afghan Taliban was a creation of Pakistan's intelligence services to exert influence and stabilize Afghanistan compatible with its own interests after the Soviet withdrawal and years of bloody civil war.

Pakistan's military is focusing its attention on subduing the Pakistan Taliban mainly in South Waziristan. The Pakistani leadership sees these groups as a direct threat to the stability of Pakistan, while viewing the Afghan Taliban as a means to counter moves by other countries, particularly India, from gaining influence on its western border. This strategy is at best unpredictable in its outcome and may be based on political and military assumptions that are no longer relevant. Once victorious in Afghanistan the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban may no longer be as loosely connected, separable and controllable as they may now appear. Undoubtedly a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will generate an influx of new players into the region upon which the government of Pakistan will have little or no influence.

As reported by the Daily Times of Pakistan, thousands of students are flocking to attend conservative Islamic schools in that country. Both Pakistan and foreign governments consider this situation a potential threat.

"The students could export extremism back to their own countries or stay and fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan," wrote the Daily Times.

Recently five young American Muslim men traveled to Pakistan allegedly to take up arms against their fellow Americans. A perception of ultimate victory of the Taliban can only increase this trend, create a magnet for extremism, increase doubts about the stability of the Pakistani government and significantly raise the Indian concern about new terrorist attacks upon their country.

Pakistan's plan will not play out in isolation. Others will have a vote, in particular the non-Pashtun Afghan Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazaras, the so-called partners in the Northern Alliance, groups long-supported by India and traditionally resisting Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan. Iran has been a longtime meddler in Afghan affairs, especially among the Farsi-speaking population and the Shiite Hazara. Iranian agents have consistently smuggled weapons to forces fighting the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the absence of either hegemony or a balance-of-power agreement, continued Taliban success in Afghanistan will likely lead to a civil war and a lethal playing field where outsiders challenge each other to exert regional influence. In such a scenario the Afghan people will likely have even less control of their fate than they do now.

Obama has presented an ambitious 18-month strategy to increase U.S. and NATO troop levels, reverse the Taliban's increasing dominance in the Afghan countryside, strengthen the Afghan government and increase the size and effectiveness of the Afghan security forces to stabilize Afghanistan sovereignty.

Hard-core Taliban support represents only a small percentage of the Afghan people. Nevertheless Afghans, surrounding South Asian countries and the enemy are waiting and hedging their bets to ascertain if the United States and its NATO allies have the will and the wherewithal to see the job through to a successful conclusion.

Now that we've embarked on this path, I can only pray that the president is right.

(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or U.S. government.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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