August 26, 2008

The Entwined Fate of Two Terrorised Nations

LEADING ARTICLE Pakistan and Afghanistan face the same Taliban threat

Even by the notoriously low standards of South Asian politics, Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistani People's Party, is a compromised figure, dogged by corruption charges. So it is hard to be enthused by the PPP's decision to nominate its leader as the country's next president. The abrupt departure of Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League yesterday from the ruling coalition will make Mr Zardari's appointment more difficult, but it may not be enough to prevent him getting his hands on the presidency.

Yet, despite all these reservations, it is hard to contradict Mr Zardari's recent analysis that religious extremists are getting "the upper hand" in Pakistan and the wider region. An abundance of evidence before our own eyes supports that interpretation. The killing of 10 French Nato soldiers last week 50km from Kabul was the most emphatic demonstration yet of the Taliban's ability to strike within range of the Afghan capital. And yesterday the Taliban's Pakistani offshoot claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Islamabad, proving that the Pakistani capital is also well within the militants' sights.

It has never been clearer that the fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are entwined in this battle against a common enemy. There will never be stability in Afghanistan until the Taliban is denied a base across the border in Pakistan. Yet Pakistan is finding it impossible to police its western territories effectively while the Pashtun population of those areas support the "resistance" of their tribal allies across that border against perceived foreign occupation. This is the complex tangle of historical loyalties, national pride and religious fanaticisms that the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Nato must somehow unpick if there is ever to be a semblance of peace in the region.

On the face of it, Mr Zardari's proposal to add the Taliban to the official list of banned organisations in Pakistan looks like a futile gesture. If the Taliban's brand of religiously inspired violence could be eliminated by legal writ, it would surely have been snuffed out long ago. But there could be more to this than meets the eye.

President Pervez Musharraf presented himself to the outside world as a steadfast opponent of the Taliban, yet the former army leader was playing a double game. He delivered a few significant al-Qa'ida operatives to the United States, but his record on taking the fight directly to the Taliban was, in fact, rather weak.

Tens of thousands of troops were deployed to Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier under his rule, but the army's hand was always stayed by elements within the Pakistani state which favoured the Taliban. We should never forget that the ties between the two go deep. Pakistan nurtured the Taliban as a resistance movement to the Soviet invasion in the 1980s . If Mr Zardari's sounding of the alarm means that the government of Pakistan is now going to step up military efforts to put down the Taliban, it could be the first piece of encouraging news from the region in many months.

Western room for manoeuvre is extremely constricted. Nato can increase its military support to the government of the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but any serious Western military operation across the border in Pakistan would simply throw oil onto the flames of the Pashtun insurgency and undermine the authority of Islamabad. The unfortunate truth is that the outside world can do little but hope that democracy in Pakistan will prove better than military rule in suppressing the murderous extremism of the Taliban.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.