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Afghanistan withdrawal fuels fears in neighboring Pakistan

The impending withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO combat troops from Afghanistan is raising worries next door in Pakistan, where a growing number of experts are warning that the forces’ departure could reinvigorate a domestic insurgency that Pakistan’s military is barely keeping at bay.

As President Barack Obama winds down U.S. involvement in the war, the Pakistani commentators argue that NATO’s withdrawal will embolden Pakistani militants, perhaps creating a territorial vacuum that will enable the militants to set up bases in Afghanistan from which they could launch operations in Pakistan.

The fears reflect uncertainty about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital if deeply troublesome U.S. ally in the region. In recent months, against the backdrop of a seven-month freeze in relations between Islamabad and Washington, the experts are challenging a long-dominant narrative here that blames the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for Pakistan’s insurgency.

The first to express the changing perception was Ayaz Amir, Pakistan’s leading English-language columnist and an opposition member of Parliament, who wrote in March in The News International: “Those who think that the American presence is the sole cause of militancy are living in a world of their own. . . . Our nightmare will not end. With the American withdrawal, another phase of it, perhaps a more dangerous one, will begin.”

Since then, other commentators have followed suit as 150,000 Pakistani counter-terrorism forces have struggled to keep a lid on domestic militant groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, an organization that’s separate from but allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Already, Pakistani Taliban groups the military evicted in 2009 from the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal areas and the district of Swat have relocated to the neighboring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nurestan, from which they frequently send raiding parties to attack paramilitary installations, blow up schools and kidnap residents in Pakistan. They also broadcast messages via an FM radio station.

It’s a striking mirror image of the Afghan Taliban’s use of havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas to wage war against coalition forces in Afghanistan, the commentators have noted.

The Pakistani military, convinced that the U.S. inevitably would abandon Afghanistan, has maintained covert relations with Afghan Taliban commanders based on its soil, figuring the policy will help position it as the arbiter of an eventual political solution in Afghanistan, the commentators said. The double-dealing has earned the ire of the U.S. and its NATO partners, which have excluded Pakistan from tentative peace talks with the Taliban, and has encouraged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to seek closer ties with Pakistan’s blood rival, India.

In the final years of the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan, commentators say a nightmare scenario is emerging for Pakistan’s strategic planners. Since the Taliban regime was overthrown in November 2001, the commentators have dreaded the prospect of a strong Afghan administration allied with India, leaving Pakistan with two hostile borders to defend.

Increasingly, they’re calling for a review of Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan and its approach to relations with the U.S.

The policy “has grabbed us by the throat . . . things can’t continue like this,” Najam Sethi, a newspaper editor, has said on the current-affairs program he hosts on Geo News, Pakistan’s most popular cable channel

The Pakistani military’s operations against militants in the restive tribal areas along the Afghan border, which began in 2009, have produced mixed results.

By last August, the counter-terrorism forces apparently had succeeded in wresting control of most of the Pakistani Taliban’s territory and breaking the insurgents’ command-and-control structure. But the military decided against a fight to the bitter end, reasoning that the predominantly Pashtun insurgents – like their fellow tribesmen who battled Pakistani forces during the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – would never surrender.

Instead, the military leaned on Pakistan’s civilian government and political parties to unveil last October a policy of “give peace a chance,” which sought to exploit divisions among the insurgents in order to restore peace in the tribal areas. Experts said the military assumed that the presence in those areas of Afghan Taliban allies – frequently the target of U.S. drone attacks – would put pressure on the insurgents and keep them off balance.

In January, the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant faction that’s been based in Pakistan since the 1980s, formed a council of Pakistani militants with the declared purpose of persuading the insurgents to stop fighting the military and join the insurgency in Afghanistan. But the idea backfired. The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mahsud, used the lull to reassert his control and replace his peace-inclined rivals with trusted associates who want to continue to fight.

Mahsud has reorganized the insurgency into a guerrilla campaign across the tribal region and adjacent areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The insurgents have extended their reach to major Pakistani cities, where their favored method has been sectarian attacks on Shiite Muslims.

The Pakistani military’s mistake, commentators said, was to believe that the Afghan Taliban would work against their Pakistani counterparts.

“They are, after all, each other’s buddies, comrades in arms who have fought shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan,” said Saifullah Mahsud, the executive director of the FATA Research Center, an independent research center in Islamabad.

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