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Pakistan’s Taliban ties may be key to U.S. Afghan goals

Despite a wealth of detail in leaked U.S. documents about suspected collusion between Pakistani intelligence agents and the Afghan Taliban, experts here say the U.S. and Afghanistan have little choice but to work with a partner they believe supports, funds and equips their enemy.

Pakistan vehemently denies assisting the Taliban, an assertion officials repeated after documents posted by the website WikiLeaks detailed reports of numerous meetings and contacts between intelligence agents and Afghan militants. Among them were instances in which operatives were said to have coordinated attacks against Western forces in Afghanistan and supplied insurgents with motorcycles for suicide bombings.

However, U.S. and Afghan officials know that any viable plan to end nine years of conflict in Afghanistan requires Pakistan’s involvement, in large measure precisely because of its long-standing relations with the Taliban.

The Obama administration has increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and launched a counterinsurgency strategy in an effort to degrade the Taliban’s fighting capabilities, build up the Afghan government and encourage some insurgent fighters to switch sides.

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But the administration also is aiming to start withdrawing its troops next year, a goal that has led officials in both Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, to conclude that Washington is not in the conflict for the long haul, and that they must work with each other.

Afghan leaders have welcomed the prospect of Pakistan brokering peace talks with the Haqqani network, a Pashtun militant group that uses the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan as a base for launching attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

“It’s only Pakistan that can bring Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban close to each other and work on a solution that’s acceptable to both,” said retired Brig. Javed Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst and former commander of Pakistan’s special forces.

Far from revelatory, the leaked reports bolster longstanding concerns in Washington and Kabul that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, works with Afghan Taliban insurgents. However, the documents lay out in sweeping detail reports of the extent of that cooperation.

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At the center of many of the reports is Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general and the ISI’s chief from 1987 to ’89. Known more recently as the “father of the Taliban,” Gul was earlier instrumental in Pakistan’s efforts to organize holy war fighters against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Western leaders have long suspected that Gul maintained close ties with leaders of the Afghan Taliban, which came to power in the mid-1990s and was routed by the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The leaked reports suggest that Gul’s relationship with the Taliban at times included actively directing and assisting militants planning attacks on Western and Afghan security forces.

One report from December 2006 described a meeting between Taliban leaders in Nowshera, Pakistan, in which Gul stated that he had sent three militants to Kabul to carry out bombing attacks on Western and Afghan security forces. The report paraphrased Gul as telling the meeting’s participants that he had urged the three militants to “make the snow warm in Kabul, basically telling them to set Kabul aflame.”

A report logged in March 2008 stated that the ISI had ordered Sirajuddin Haqqani, who along with his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, leads the Haqqani network, to kill Indian engineers and workers involved in road construction projects in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province. Pay for the killings would range from $15,000 to $30,000, the report stated. An April 2007 report claimed that the ISI had sent 1,000 motorcycles to the Haqqani network for use in suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan’s Khowst and Lowgar provinces.

If true, the ISI-Taliban relationship should not come as a surprise, given how crucial Pakistani officials believe Afghanistan is to the stability of their own country, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Stratfor, a U.S.-based foreign policy think tank.

In the short term, experts say, the leaked reports may aggravate tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan over contacts with the Taliban. But in the long run, they say, each side must keep in mind larger strategic issues.

Experts say that Pakistan will always seek influence over Kabul in order to diminish the role of its archrival to the east, India, which already is investing heavily in Afghanistan and may increase its effort as the U.S. begins pulling out.

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Nearly all Taliban militants are Pashtuns, an ethnic group that stretches from Pakistan’s volatile western tribal belt deep into Afghanistan. Pakistan’s relationship with the Pashtuns affects Afghanistan as well as its own internal security in its tribal areas.

The Obama administration has lauded Pakistan for launching large-scale military offensives against Pakistani Taliban in the country’s restive northwest, where Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda figures also are thought to be hiding.

The U.S. also has urged Pakistan to expand its anti-militant campaign to include the Haqqani network ensconced in North Waziristan. Pakistani military officials say they do not have the manpower to do that. But they may also be reluctant to damage a long-standing relationship that might continue to be useful.

And experts say that precisely because of its long-standing ties to the Taliban, Pakistan is the only power in the region that can pressure elements within the Taliban to negotiate. Given the U.S. goal of beginning a troop drawdown next year, Pakistan believes it is vital to maintain ties with Taliban leaders who could stake out a future role in Afghanistan, according to Stratfor.

“The Pakistanis also know that the Americans are leaving, and that the Taliban or a coalition including the Taliban will be in charge of Afghanistan when the Americans leave,” Stratfor expert George Friedman said in the analysis.

Analysts in Pakistan believe the Obama administration will keep that bigger picture in mind as it wrestles with the fallout from the leaked reports. The White House’s measured remarks Monday echoed that line of thinking.

“If the U.S. wants an honorable beginning of a drawdown next July, then I think they will keep the focus on what role Pakistan can play, rather than on what the ISI has been doing,” said Imtiaz Gul, an Islamabad-based security analyst who has extensively studied militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. “They should understand the need for counterintelligence to stay in touch with people next door.”

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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