Crackdown On Taliban Shifts U.S.-Pakistan Ties

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has been bolstered by successful intelligence operations. But skepticism persists over whether Pakistan really intends to pursue Afghan militants on its soil. U.S. officials cite a positive change in mood, but both sides are wary about over-promising what this new cooperation can deliver.

A series of Pakistani army offensives against domestic militants and a string of arrests of senior Afghan Taliban signal a new understanding between Pakistan and the United States. As Pakistan accelerates action against extremists, Washington has reciprocated with stepped up delivery of military hardware and praise for the Pakistan government.

For years, Pakistan denied that any senior members of the Afghan Taliban were on its territory. But those denials were cast aside last month when Pakistani and American intelligence agents arrested Mullah Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's deputy leader in a joint raid in the Pakistani port of Karachi.

Pakistan helped create the Taliban and facilitated its rise to power in Afghanistan in the turbulent years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. But retired Pakistani Brigadier Talat Masood says his country's policy is changing.

"I think Pakistan has realized that it cannot continue to support militants at the same time be an ally with the United States. I think there is a shift taking place, it is a gradual shift, but the realization is there. I think we have to understand that," Masood adds.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official confirmed that the CIA and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, have conducted 63 joint operations in the past year. They often travel in the same vehicle to pick up their quarry, and sit "behind the same glass" when interrogating suspects.

Newspaper Editor Najam Sethi says Pakistan has grasped that the Afghan Taliban is not separate from the Pakistan Taliban with whom the country is at war.

"The Pakistanis now have come around to the fact that this is a seamless network in many ways. And the CIA is doing its job of intelligence and the Pakistanis are doing their job of physical nabbing," Sethi adds.

But Moeed Yusuf, South Asia Adviser at the U.S. Institute for Peace, does not see the recent string of arrests as a strategic shift. Pakistan reportedly fears being excluded from any talks with the Afghan Taliban to end the fighting in Afghanistan.

Yusuf says Pakistan helped capture the Afghan Taliban's second in command Mullah Baradar to stay relevant and to ensure a place for itself at the table when the parties explore a negotiated end to the Afghan war.

"This was a very clear message from the Pakistani establishment to the U.S. as well as to the Afghan Taliban, that 'we are going to be the main interlocutors'," Yusuf says. "Pakistan because of its own paranoia that it may be left out, will continue to signal this off and on.

The Pakistanis show no sign of handing Mullah Baradar over to the Americans or the Afghan government. Though a Pakistani intelligence source said the Americans have "equal access" to the key Taliban commander. Whatever differences exist over the handling of the Afghan Taliban, Americans give high marks to Pakistan's campaign against its homegrown Taliban.

The Pakistan army has been busily sweeping militants from their strongholds in the treacherous Tribal Belt along the Afghan border.

This past week in Bajaur, the smallest of Pakistan's seven tribal districts, a civilian militia of 1,000 men, brandished guns and sang songs to celebrate the defeat of the Taliban there.

Pakistan's army unearthed a honeycomb of caves there that the top brass described as a nerve center for the Taliban, and a one time haven for al-Qaida. It attracted an assortment of extremists, who launched attacks against Pakistani targets as well as NATO troops next door.

Pointing to a strategic ridge just beside a beautiful snow-capped peak, Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corp Chief General Tariq Khan says his forces recently seized the area after a fierce battle. They planted the green crescent flag of Pakistan over the hills that foreign and local militants once controlled.

"This is the conduit that they used to travel in and out," Kahn says. "Do you see those white spots? That's where my men are now."

Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group says the Pakistan military leadership has deftly re-framed the war on extremist — replacing the American mantra of "do more" with their own rhetoric: "This is our war, this is not just yours. This has not been thrust upon us. We are willing to do this for our own sake."

And Ahmed says the U.S. officials beating a path to army headquarters here come away impressed with the military's performance beating back the Pakistani Taliban.

"They all leaving saying great job! No longer just words. It's action on the ground."

But Ahmed says Pakistan's relations with other militant commanders remain in tact. "While there's been some action taken on some Taliban groups, there hasn't been action taken against the Kashmir-based, the India-based jihadis, some Afghan insurgents as well such as the Haqqani network."

Operating from Pakistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani and his network of Afghan insurgents attack U.S. and NATO troops across the border. The CIA believes Haqqani had a role in the killing of seven Americans in eastern Afghanistan in December.

A Pakistani intelligence source said "we'll get him when his time comes."

Defense analyst Talat Masood says Pakistan must act on its own timetable. "It is already over-stretched so it has to really calibrate its response to American pressure."

Amir Sultan Tarar is a former Pakistan Intelligence officer with a devotion to Allah and the Afghan Taliban. Also known as Colonel Imam, he played a prominent role in recruiting and training resistance fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. His views reflect a deep distrust of the U.S. that has long run through the Pakistan military, the intelligence services and the Pakistani people.

"We have been treated as a subjugated nation," Colonel Imam says. "We have no free will, please understand that. But this is not the way."

He says Pakistan has little choice but to get in line with the U.S. demand for more cooperation in the battle against the Taliban.

"Telling us to do more — what a wisdom," Colonel Imam exclaimed. "You do more, you make more enemies. We are doing the wrong thing on the American behest. Just to please them."

Pakistan is now going after its former allies. To accommodate Pakistan, the U.S. is easing Pakistani concerns about India; and providing long sought F-16's jets and billions of dollars in development aid.

It is costly but in the words of one American official, "We are in a race for the fate of Pakistan."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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