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Clinton heads to Pakistan to discuss its crucial Afghan role

International Desk |
Update: 2010-07-15 15:20:20
Clinton heads to Pakistan to discuss its crucial Afghan role

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Clinton heads to Pakistan in the coming days to bolster support in the fight against the Taliban and outline a political endgame to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

As she heads to a donors` conference in Kabul set for Tuesday, Clinton was expected to press her counterparts to step up their efforts against the insurgents.

She will also discuss reconciliation efforts between Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s government and "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban.
But Washington considers Islamabad`s role in the effort "ambiguous and opaque" at this point, according to the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

Pakistan may be a crucial US ally against extremists in the region, but it also harbors a major contingent of Taliban fighters and their Al`Qaeda allies, who are killing more international forces in Afghanistan than ever before in the nine`year war.

The United States has also repeatedly questioned Pakistan`s willingness to stop the insurgents and move away from its historical role of focusing precious military resources to fighting its nuclear`armed neighbor and arch`foe, India.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been marked by distrust, but there have been growing signs of rapprochement, and Karzai in March welcomed an offer from Pakistan to help with peace efforts.

Pakistani officials reportedly negotiated a meeting between Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior Al`Qaeda`linked militant who heads the Haqqani network based in North Waziristan, Pakistan, though all parties denied the report.

Karzai has been trying to convince the rebels to give up fighting his administration in return for an amnesty.

Yet Pakistan has an ambivalent relationship with groups like the Haqqani network that targets foreign forces in Afghanistan and some of whose leaders are thought to have close ties with Pakistani intelligence.

And Pakistani generals are reluctant to send their overstretched troops against groups that avoid attacks within Pakistan.

Meanwhile, General David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, wants to blacklist the Haqqani network, a move that could complicate reconciliation efforts, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Pakistan`s role in Afghanistan`s future `` whether facilitating dialogue between the Taliban and coalition allies or acting against the Haqqani network and other groups based in North Waziristan `` is likely to loom large during Clinton`s visit.

"Pakistan and Karzai want to explore that option, but we don`t know what will be the terms and conditions," Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari said about plans to foster dialogue with specific elements of the extremist groups.
Despite a "far better climate" lately between Islamabad and Washington, they still pursue very different objectives in Afghanistan, said Teresita Schaffer, who heads the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"For the United States, it is key that the Afghan government, and those Taliban elements who may join it, have no links to Al`Qaeda and that Afghanistan does not once again become a base for Al`Qaeda," she told AFP.

But Pakistan`s "main objective is to minimize Indian influence in Pakistan," added the former US ambassador to Sri Lanka, noting however that Pakistan was "absolutely" ready to deal with Al`Qaeda`linked Taliban fighters.
Meanwhile, Islamabad lends little credence to US promises of an enduring presence in the region, with wounds still raw from the tragic consequences of Washington`s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s after the Soviets were routed from the aptly nicknamed "graveyard of empires."

"When President (Barack) Obama announced that US troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, the Pakistanis saw a confirmation of their worries," Schaffer said.

Obama mentioned the timeline during a December speech announcing a troop surge in Afghanistan to push total US force levels to 100,000 in the coming weeks, and international troop numbers to 150,000.
But it was the withdrawal date that got the most attention in the region, according to Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"There`s no question that that was the headline `` for Afghans, for Pakistanis, for Indians, really for everyone," he said.

"The rest of that speech got washed away, and that date remained fixed on people`s minds."

BDST: 9:28 HRS, 15 July 2010

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