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Commentary: Pakistan showdown

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   Feb. 18, 2014 at 7:33 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- What little attention Americans can spare for foreign crises during the winter Olympics in Sochi is usually monopolized by Syria's three-year civil war with its 140,000 dead and 2 million homeless refugees.

Sound and sight blur quickly as Syria's multi-front war extends into Iraq where volunteer Muslim guerrilla fighters gather from all over the world's Muslim communities -- Persian Gulf Arab states, Tunisia, Libya, Bosnia, Russia's Chechnya and North Caucasus regions -- and Muslim communities throughout Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain and even from the United States.

Sunni Muslim volunteers usually wind up fighting against Syrian government forces while Shiite Muslims side with the Assad regime in Damascus, From 5,000 to 10,000 volunteers are deployed on each side. For the most part inexperienced, several hundred have been killed in action.

Unable to make headway, negotiators from both sides met for three days under a senior U.N. mediator in Geneva and then flew home.

Still more dangerous than a spreading civil war in the Middle East is the longest war in U.S. history, the Afghan conflict, now in its 12th year at the cost of more than $1 trillion. Some estimates, including post-war veteran health costs, range up to $1.4 trillion.

A U.S.-Afghan victory, it won't be. In fact, it appears that the reason Afghan President Hamid Karzai is holding out against signing an agreement with the United States to keep some 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for further Afghan army training, is a possible three-way deal that would keep him close to power after his term ends in July.

Karzai has been betting on Nawaz Sharif, the virulently anti-U.S. Pakistani prime minister, whose plan is to legalize Pakistan's homegrown Taliban -- the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan -- and to make Sharia the new law of the land.

In Karzai's mind, Sharia could then be extended to Afghanistan and he could remain close to power beyond July, a least for a decent interval. In Sharif's mind, Pakistan, under Sharia law, would once again become the dominant power in Afghanistan, as it was prior to 9/11.

Sharif's idea, reports Ammar Turabi, a Pakistani-American expert, is to make peace with Taliban by helping them to power and prominence in Afghanistan. Legalizing TTP as a legitimate political party in Pakistan would be Sharif's next step.

If successful, Sharif would have imposed Sharia in both countries and Afghanistan would revert to its former role as a client state of Pakistan. Easier said than done.

TTP's price for accepting this would be Sharia as the law of the land or a nuclear power ruled by religious fanatics. TTP terrorists have been sowing death and destruction all over Pakistan. Some 49,000, including 5,000 law enforcement personnel, were killed in 10 years. And damage to the Pakistani economy, the World Bank estimates, is almost $50 billion.

By the same token, Sharif would be providing a fresh opportunity to Afghan Taliban to restore their rule in Afghanistan after more than a decade of guerrilla warfare against the United States and the NATO alliance and other friendly nations. Almost 40 countries are present on the ground against Taliban.

There's a joker in Nawaz Sharif's deck of cards. The all-powerful Pakistani army is commanded by generals who regard TTP as the enemy of modernity and decent government. Pakistan's new army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, sworn in last November, and his 10 corps commanders are determined to block Nawaz Sharif's grand design.

This past week, TTP announced the execution of 23 Pakistani soldiers who had been taken prisoner in the Mohmand tribal agency in 2010. This was retaliation, a published TTP letter states, for what it called the custodial killing of their fighters in various parts of Pakistan.

Pakistan's commanding generals have held power for more than half of Pakistan's 67 years as an independent state. From what little is known about Raheel Sharif, he would consider a legalized TTP, as envisaged by Nawaz Sharif, an unmitigated disaster. Those who know him say he would act to prevent it.

With or without Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, Raheel Sharif plans to execute what army sources tell Ammar Turabi is a campaign to rid Pakistan of the scourge of Taliban. The army is expected to return to power sooner than later.

The head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, interviewed by this reporter and Ammar Turabi in Kandahar three months before the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, hasn't been heard from since. He is believed to be in hiding underground in Pakistan. So is the overall TTP chief.

In any event, after Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif visited Kabul at the end of 2013, Karzai became convinced that his future was in Sharif's hands. Sharif evidently persuaded him that he can mobilize support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia in favor of his TTP strategy.

Meeting again in Ankara in mid-February, Sharif persuaded Karzai that his future lies with his scenario for ending the Afghan war, not with Washington's and the need for 10,000 U.S. troops to stay beyond the end of 2014. Hence, Karzai's decision not to sign anything with Washington while he is still in office.

Much could still change in Afghanistan with the election of a new president. But whether the United States stays another six months or leaves at the end of this year, the key to Afghanistan's future will revert to Pakistan where it was before 9/11.

© 2014 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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