Setting the record straight
President Musharraf this week gave a stout defence of Pakistan's policy toward the Taliban. But he doesn't know how to defeat them, writes Graham Usher in Rawlpindi
"I know I appear emotional," cried Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hysterically on 2 February. "That's because I am emotional. Pakistan is the victim of everything yet Pakistan is being blamed for everything."
The Pakistan leader was addressing a packed press conference at army headquarters in Rawlpindi. It had been called to clarify a number of "misperceptions" about Pakistan's policy toward its 2500 kilometre-long border with Afghanistan. "The time has come to set the record straight," said Musharraf.
The record had been skewed in his eyes by a gale of criticism emanating from Washington that Pakistan was "not doing enough" to curb a revived Taliban in the border areas. But the final straw (say sources) was the passage of a law, already approved by Congress, that would predicate all military assistance to Pakistan on the US president "determining and certifying" that Islamabad had taken "all actions" against the Taliban. This is no small threat. After Israel and Egypt, Pakistan is the largest recipient of US aid, much of it military.
Musharraf admitted "tactical lapses" in his army's performance. "I know at some (border) posts a blind eye was being turned" to Taliban cross-border infiltration. "I imagine others may be doing the same.". But the idea the army and Pakistan's main Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency were actively supporting the Afghan insurgency was "preposterous", he said. "Such accusations do not even deserve a response. It amounts to directly accusing me and my ISI chief."
Still, the president responded. Aside from losing 700 men in battles with the Taliban in the tribal areas in the last three years, the army had set up nearly 1,000 check-posts along the border, he said. "Do you know how many NATO and the Afghan army have established on their side of the border? Less than a 100." Pakistan had tried to introduce bio-metric cards to better monitor passage of the people at one crossing into Afghanistan. "But the Afghan side cut up the cards with scissors".
He had proposed fencing and, in some places, mining the border. Above all, Pakistan wanted the repatriation of Afghan refugee camps that are "the core of Taliban support in Pakistan". But on each proposal Pakistan had been rebuffed by an Afghan government unwilling to recognise its eastern border as permanent and unable to absorb over two million, potentially hostile, citizens.
"We refuse to take complete responsibility for what happens on the border," said Musharraf. "If someone crosses from Afghanistan to Pakistan, we are responsible. If someone crosses from Pakistan to Afghanistan, we are responsible. No sir we are not responsible. It's a joint responsibility of Pakistan, Afghan, NATO and US forces."
Musharraf was just as clear as to the real causes behind a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Citing UN, US and NATO sources, he said there were three. A NATO force that was massively under-resourced for the task of nation building. The clear reluctance by many NATO members to commit forces and money to a campaign that appeared to have no clear strategy of winning the war against the Taliban. And, third, a weak Afghan government whose writ did not exist beyond district towns. The conclusion was inescapable, said Musharraf. "Afghan Taliban leaders come to Pakistan to generate support and recruits. We have to stop that support. But the cause of the Taliban resurgence and the solution to it lies within Afghanistan."
But the Pakistan leader was on weaker ground when it came to possible solutions. He insisted that Pakistan's policy of setting up tribal councils in the tribal areas was "weaning people off the Taliban", despite massive evidence that such bodies have in fact empowered the Taliban as authentic representatives of the tribes. He also admitted that the Taliban were a "popular" movement amongst the Pushtuns and that the Pushtuns were the largest ethnic group, not only in the tribal areas, but also in Afghanistan. "There is a need for a paradigm shift to restore peace in Afghanistan," he said.
But when asked if this meant he would urge the Afghan government to open negotiations with the Taliban, he hedged. And for good reason. He knows such decisions are not taken in Kabul, no more than they have be taken in Islamabad or even Brussels -- they are taken in Washington.