Yesterday, March 1, U.S. President George W. Bush visited Afghanistan amid increasing uncertainty about the future of U.S. involvement in the region. This was the first time in more than 50 years that a U.S. president has visited Afghanistan. Although kept secret due to security concerns, speculation was high that he would stopover on his way to India, because not visiting Afghanistan during this historic trip to the region would have sent a highly negative signal to friends and foes alike.
Bush’s visit comes amid increasing concerns about the renewed and emboldened activities of the insurgents on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and about Islamabad’s inability to curb their growth inside Pakistan and their infiltration across the border into Afghanistan. The situation is also tense due to the riots sparked by the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, in which more than 15 people were killed in Afghanistan alone.
Although it is too early to speculate how Bush’s visit might affect events in Afghanistan and the region, nonetheless, the stopover gave the president a chance to get a closer look at issues vital to the security of the region.
The security situation on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been deteriorating steadily in recent weeks. The two neighbors are exchanging charges and countercharges about the insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of training Taliban terrorists on its soil and of harboring their leaders. During his recent trip to Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai handed a list of 150 Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, believed to be active in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities, including President Pervez Musharraf, admit that they are active in the country: “Right…Nobody denies that. Nobody denies that there is Taliban and al-Qaeda activity here in our border” (ABC/WNT, interview with Musharraf, February 27).
More damning is the assertion in the Pakistani press: “In Balochistan, it is virtually impossible for the government to say with certainty that the Taliban are not ‘present and training.’ President Karzai should know this …” (Daily Times, Pakistan, February 27).
Pakistan alleges that the insurgency in its western province of Balochistan is fueled by the Research and Analysis Wing of Indian intelligence (Musharraf Interview, February 27).
While allegations fly, one fact has emerged: although Pakistan dismissed the intelligence information and the list of suspects presented by Afghanistan as “outdated,” it did not deny that these people were in Pakistan, except for Mullah Omar, who Musharraf said is in Afghanistan.
From Pakistan itself, there is increasingly worrisome news that the Taliban are in full control of some tribal agencies. “The Taliban recently declared the establishment of an ‘Islamic State’ in North Waziristan,” reports the Asia Times, “and they now, through brutal elimination of the criminal elements who previously held sway, in effect rule in the rugged territory” (Asia Times, February 8). Local administrators are powerless; the army is confined to military outposts; local pro-government leaders are being assassinated; and the intellectuals and those who oppose the Taliban style of government are on the run.
That is the situation with the Taliban in Pakistan. However, there is not much difference between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani branches. They have more traits in common with each other than with their respective countrymen.
During the press conference in Kabul, an Afghan reporter asked President Bush about bin Laden. He answered: “I’m confident he will be brought to justice. What’s happening is we’ve got U.S. forces on the hunt not only for bin Laden but everybody who plots and plans with [him].” He added that “steady progress” had been made in “dismantling al-Qaeda” (BBC, March 1).
However, many analysts in the region do not share Bush’s optimism on the dismantling of al-Qaeda. So far the Pakistani government and the U.S. policy of fighting terror have not been successful. The deteriorating situation in Iraq, the cartoon controversy, and the January bombing of Pakistan’ Bajaur province have galvanized extremists across the region. “Bin Laden’s new friendship zone stretches nearly 2,000 miles along Pakistan’s Pashtun belt — from Chitral in the Northern Areas near the Chinese border, south through the troubled tribal agencies including Waziristan, down to Zhob on the Balochistan border, then to the provincial capital Quetta and southwest to the Iranian border. The region includes every landscape from desert to snow-capped mountains. Sparsely populated, it provides bin Laden an ideal sanctuary,” writes a Pakistani analyst. “Bin Laden has fighters and sympathizers down the length and breadth of Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. No Pakistani Pashtun has reason to betray bin Laden, despite the $27 million reward for his head,” he says (Washington Post, February 26).
Many in Afghanistan believe that Pakistan is using the extremism card as its strategic weapon to gain a foothold in and counter the perceived Indian influence in Afghanistan. President Karzai himself, during a weekly radio program in late January, charged that “a neighbor” of Afghanistan has had a hand in the recent upsurge in violence. “The reason for these attacks is the continuation of subversive endeavors” by outside forces seeking “to dominate” Afghanistan.” Karzai continued, “The former Taliban regime was part of a ‘hidden invasion’ of Afghanistan ‘by a neighbor for the second time’ since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979” (RFE/RL February 23).
So far U.S. support of the Pakistani policy of fighting terrorism has not borne fruit. President Bush’s trip to the region should hopefully help in the realization that the key factor in helping to salvage the situation is the U.S. stand vis-à-vis Pakistan. If Washington continues to toe the line drawn by Pakistan, neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan itself will be saved from chaos. Playing the Taliban card would not only plunge Pakistan but perhaps the entire region into turmoil. Unlike Afghanistan, where the United States was aided by two-thirds of the population in ousting the Taliban, this time around the Taliban and their supporters are one and the same and may need much more than a few B-52s to drive them out.