WHY PAKISTAN AND AFGHANISTAN MATTER – QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

BY JERRY NORTON

ISLAMABAD – U.S. President Barack Obama presents his strategy for defeating al Qaeda to the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday as U.S. concern grows it is losing the Afghan war and neither country is a reliable ally.

The White House meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be Obama’s first face-to-face sessions with the two men.

Central to U.S. concerns are the activity of al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, held responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and of the hard-line Islamist Taliban who give al Qaeda shelter and support.

Just a week ago Obama said “it is my job to make sure that bin Laden and his cronies are not able to create a safe haven with which they can kill another 3,000 Americans or more.”

But preventing another attack on U.S. soil is not simply a matter of pouring more troops into Afghanistan, nor is that the only concern of the United States in the region.

Here are some other considerations.

WHAT ABOUT THE NEIGHBOURS?

India and China have their own problems with Islamic militants they do not want supported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, with whom they share common borders. India or China might be tempted to act if U.S. leadership is ineffective in controlling the situation. So might Shi’ite Muslim Iran, which has its own differences with the militantly Sunni al Qaeda, and is unhappy over a domestic drug problem linked to supplies from Afghanistan. Russia is also worried about the flow of drugs and militancy from the region. Washington does not want Afghanistan and Pakistan as bases for trouble in the wider region, or give others an excuse for intervention.

HOW DOES PAKISTAN FIGURE IN THE AFGHANISTAN WAR?

The U.S.-led invasion in 2001 threw the Taliban out of Kabul and forced their and al Qaeda’s remnants into the most remote and rugged parts of Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region. But the United States then turned its attention to Iraq. The forces devoted to Afghanistan not only failed to finish off the militants but could not stop their resurgence. Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest levels since the Taliban were driven from power. The insurgents’ ability to rest and regroup in Pakistan has been an important factor in their rebound.

WHAT DOES THE U.S. WANT FROM PAKISTAN?

The United States wants Pakistan to crack down hard on al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban sheltering in the border areas. It is also concerned about growing violence within Pakistan against the government. Indigenous Pakistani Taliban effectively control the Swat valley, and last month moved into the neighboring Buner area, just 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Islamabad. While the military has since been pushing them back, its past offensives have been followed by peace deals allowing the militants to rearm and increase their strength. They have been able to pull off suicide and other attacks across Pakistan, raising fear about government stability. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Islamabad of abdicating to the Taliban by agreeing to Islamic law in Swat and Obama has expressed concern the government is “very fragile.”

IS THE U.S. WORRIED ABOUT PAKISTAN’S NUCLEAR WEAPONS?

If one believes the public words of Obama and top U.S. military officer Admiral Mike Mullen, no. Within the last week, for example, Obama said: “I’m confident that we can make sure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure.” But other U.S. officials have been quoted anonymously as being less optimistic. The New York Times has reported growing U.S. concern militants might try to snatch a weapon in transit or insert sympathizers into laboratories or fuel-production facilities, especially given what some call Pakistan’s “creeping Talibanization.” For its part, Islamabad insists the weapons are safe.

WHY ELSE ARE AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN IMPORTANT?

Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, and Clinton said it had become a “narco state” in her confirmation hearings. Much of the output comes from Taliban-controlled areas.

Much of the material for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan is unloaded in Pakistan’s main port of Karachi and transported by land into Afghanistan. Increase militancy and political turbulence in Pakistan threaten those supplies.

Given peace and security, Pakistan and Afghanistan have the potential to be an “energy corridor” with pipelines carrying natural gas from the Middle East and Central Asia to the growing economies of India, China and other Asian countries.

See Related: PAKISTAN

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