Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No easy ride

Locked between US plans in the Arab region and Afghanistan, Pakistan appears both a target and a victim of the war on terror, writes Abdallah El-Ashaal*

A happy ending is what Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot by any stretch of imagination have. It all started when the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in mid-December 1977 and Washington retaliated with a cry for what was then a fashionable jihad. By the time the Soviets left and the Afghans started fighting amongst themselves, the damage was already done across the border.

The years of fighting against the Soviets and the spectacular rise of the Taliban gave rise to Islamic militancy within Pakistan. At first, this didn't seem like a major problem, not until the twin bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Al-Salam in 1998. Since then, the Americans have been pressuring the Pakistani government to do something about its Islamists. Washington, which has watched unperturbed as the Taliban overran 95 per cent of Afghanistan, started putting pressure on the Musharraf government.

The Americans turned against the Taliban when the 9/11 attacks took place. After the attacks, revenge was swift and devastating. More than 70,000 NATO troops were called to action, and the Pakistani government was told to cooperate in no uncertain terms, and at a great cost to the popularity of the US government. As the fighting in Afghanistan dragged on, Musharraf began to look like a puppet to his own people, many of whom remained sympathetic to the Taliban.

By September 2008, US and Pakistani views were becoming fast irreconcilable. Not even Musharraf's removal from power seemed to be the answer. The Pakistani army was getting impatient with, if not outright insulted by, some in the US military. And many thought that a military coup was a definite possibility.

Washington and NATO are coming to realise that Pakistan, and not just Afghanistan, may soon pose a problem. Here are a few scenarios of what may happen next.

One possibility is that the West would step up its military presence in Afghanistan. Although the US secretary of defence says that Washington cannot send any more troops before next spring, NATO wants to score a military victory in Afghanistan. The Taliban, for their part, are making a comeback, with recent Russian-US tensions playing out to their advantage.

Another possibility is that the Taliban may accept a political compromise leading to a government of national unity. Considering the wide gap between the positions of the Taliban and the Kabul regime, this prospect is rather unlikely. Actually, the more successful the Taliban may get on the battlefield, the less likely they would be to talk to a regime that had vowed to destroy them.

The third possibility is that the Taliban, helped by Al-Qaeda, would score decisive victories. Should this happen, the new US administration may have to keep troops in Afghanistan for years to come. So far, both presidential candidates, Obama and McCain, have voiced support for the war in Afghanistan. Any reservations Obama has voiced about the war on terror were meant for Iraq, not Afghanistan.

A protracted war in Afghanistan would take a heavy toll on the global financial crisis and the US economy. As for Pakistan, the tensions may prove too much to bear. As anti-American and pro-American politicians lock horns in Afghanistan, the army may once again take over.

* The writer is former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister.

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