Afghanistan will be a balancing act

Since Sept 11, the fate of resigned president Pervez Musharraf has been inextricably linked with Afghanistan.

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Since September 11, the fate of Pervez Musharraf, who has resigned as Pakistani president, has been inextricably linked with Afghanistan. The same will apply to his immediate successor as well as to the man who ultimately assumes the job after a parliamentary vote to choose a new president. Both countries now find themselves in an ever-deepening crisis, with the main sticking point a border neither government can control. The United States always knew Pakistan would be crucial to its war effort here and Mr Musharraf immediately realised he had no choice other than to ally himself publicly with Washington. In the ensuing years, he has tried to play a delicate balancing act, caught between the demands of the West and the anger of hardliners in his country. The fact he has now fallen, and with the two neighbours engulfed in bloodshed, suggests he failed badly. But then perhaps he could never have succeeded. Pakistan has long regarded Afghanistan as a place to establish strategic depth against India and, after providing crucial support to the mujahideen's struggle against Soviet occupation, it was one of only three countries to officially recognise the Taliban government. When US intentions became clear following 9/11, Mr Musharraf knew that relationship had to change and he was soon being described as a key partner in the 'war on terrorism'. Yet despite the arrests of prominent al Qa'eda members and numerous battles between the Taliban and Pakistan's military, there has always been a feeling in Kabul that its neighbour is an enemy, not a friend. Thousands of Pakistanis, including spies and soldiers, fought the US-backed Northern Alliance during the 2001 invasion and Mr Musharraf did nothing obvious to stop them. In more recent times, he has been accused of letting insurgents establish safe havens and training camps in the tribal areas, from where they can easily launch attacks into Afghanistan. Elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency are also believed to actively support the Taliban and other militant groups. When a suicide bomber hit the Indian Embassy in Kabul this summer, the spokesman for Afghanistan's president immediately suggested Pakistan was to blame. But Mr Musharraf has become just as despised by the very insurgents he was said to be encouraging. They regard him as a puppet of Washington who has allowed the CIA and US Special Forces to launch operations against militants inside his own country, often resulting in civilian casualties. Added to that are the Nato supply lines running through Pakistan and the siege he ordered against a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad last year. Throughout it all, the West has been reluctant to rock the boat. It knows Mr Musharraf helped and hindered the war effort, but it still cannot seem to come up with a viable alternative. Now the Taliban are a substantial threat to the governments in Islamabad and Kabul, while relations between the two countries could not be worse. Whoever becomes Pakistan's next president after its parliament votes, might find the balancing act an even harder trick to pull off.

csands@thenational.ae