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Commentary: Pakistan's about face

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large

WASHINGTON, March 22 (UPI) -- Pakistan's decades-long Afghan policy has undergone a radical change. Strategically, Afghanistan is no longer considered part of Pakistan's "western defense in depth" should India attack Pakistan from the east. The country's defense doctrine also included covert assistance for the Taliban insurgency. The game changer has been a steady rapprochement between the U.S. and Pakistani defense establishments, as well as their intelligence agencies.

Taliban was originally midwifed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The objective was to end the civil war then raging in Afghanistan and ensure Taliban's victory. Following Taliban's Afghan victory in 1996 until the U.S. invasion Oct. 7, 2001, Pakistan kept the Taliban regime in business.

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In recent years, Pakistan's unstated assumption was NATO forces would grow tired of the Afghan drain on resources, negotiate a compromise that would include "moderate" Taliban, declare victory and leave.

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Pakistan's geopolitical calculus began to change as the Pakistani wing of the Taliban movement started to spread its brand of religious terror, occupying the scenic Swat valley and pushing to within 60 miles of Islamabad. ISI's special client was Taliban's Afghan insurgents holed up in their privileged sanctuaries in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The distinction between the two faded fast as U.S. drone strikes killed as many as 666 (according to the New America Foundation), including at least 20 senior figures.

A score of high-ranking U.S. visits in the past year -- frequently two or three by the same official -- have had a major impact on changing perceptions of the United States as a fickle and unreliable partner.

Pakistan's ISI, under the firm hand of Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, recently extended for another year in the job, began arresting Taliban operatives, including the second in command to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, underground since 2001, hiding among Karachi's 18 million people. Pakistan also gave covert support to Hamid Karzai's re-election as the Afghan president.

At the same time, ISI successfully negotiated a "peace plan" with Mustapha Zahir Shah, grandson of the late king Zahir Shah. This, in turn, was smoothly coordinated with army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani's timetable for operations in FATA, as well as the "sequencing" of politico-military operations in Afghanistan, culminating in Karzai's "Super Peace Jirga" next September. This would bring some 1,700 tribal, district and provincial chiefs together to discuss "policies of reconciliation with Taliban."

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If all goes well, the national reconciliation jirga will be followed by national elections -- there are already more women in the Afghan parliament than in the U.S. Congress and three women ministers in Karzai's Cabinet -- and a win-win scenario just in time for mid-term elections in the United States.

The main problem for U.S. officials advising Karzai is "how high should we set the bar on democratization?" If set too high, the United States will be stuck there for many more years. If too low, Taliban will simply tunnel back.

The ultimate objective is, of course, to keep al-Qaida out after the United States and NATO break camp. There is no push back on that front from former high-ranking Taliban officials released from U.S. detention at the Bagram Air Base. After all, it was al-Qaida's terrorism against the United States that robbed them of their country.

Karzai thus hopes to remove the label of "puppet leader propped up by the U.S. military" that sticks to his non-Afghan sartorial image, topped by his famous Karakul hat, made from aborted lamb fetuses, and wrapped in his Peter Pan cape. But there are many obstacles between now and then.

The successful U.S. Marine-cum-Afghan army ousting of Taliban from control of Marja, a town of 80,000 in Helmand province, was the first of three major politico-military steps.

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Next, this spring, will be Kandahar, a city of 460,000 that was Taliban's religious capital where the underground insurgency still holds sway.

A third operation in the southeast of Afghanistan is in the planning stage. Like Marja, these will be well publicized in advance. And Karzai's authority will immediately follow with the appointment of governors who will then appoint provincial and city chiefs.

Karzai is also being given the wherewithal to focus on government services, such as health and schools, at the district level. But first reports from Marja indicated locals unhappy at the loss of Taliban security that enabled them to grow opium poppies tax-free. The United States, wisely, is staying out of crop eradication -- for the time being.

Ranking U.S. officials in Kabul are "reasonably optimistic" that 2010 will be on balance a good year for Karzai's central authority and the 42 nations present on the ground. But any real fighting to dislodge Taliban will still have to be done by U.S., British and Canadian forces. And their senior officers are now saying, for the first time, that "Taliban's days are numbered."

Karzai is understandably concerned about who is going to foot the bill for 240,000 soldiers when the new NATO-trained army and the 160,000-strong police are up fully trained and deployed. Their pay alone will run $6 billion a year. In Vietnam, just before the final collapse of the pro-U.S. South Vietnamese army, Congress, much to the surprise of North Vietnam, suddenly voted the end of all military aid to Saigon -- ensuring a quick Communist victory.

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Karzai, after at least three assassination attempts, is now free to focus on "sub-national governance and the rule of law," said one senior U.S. official speaking privately. He is also reassured by major changes in Pakistan, now no longer secret mentor and occasional provider to Taliban.

Both "AfPak" Taliban factions and their extremist supporters throughout Pakistan are now on a common "enemies list." Pakistan is disbanding its jihadi network. Now is the time to give the highest priority to both military and economic aid to Pakistan -- and to cease quibbling over details.

In a country of 175 million, replete with some 15 million politico-religious extremists, opportunities for a positive geopolitical paradigm shifts are rare. Punjab's Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Pakistan's principal opposition figure Nawaz Sharif, tried to wreck this one by suggesting Taliban work out a "separate peace" with Punjab province.

"Cease targeting Punjab," he said and focus on the other three provinces. Mercifully, there was a nationwide outcry against the wacky suggestion. Kayani summoned him and upbraided him in language he won't soon forget. But this didn't deter Nawaz Sharif from bragging about his "old friendship" with Osama bin Laden.

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