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Pakistan to US: Don't surge in Afghanistan, talk to Taliban

Pakistan contradicts US Gen. McChrystal's strategy of pulling back from Afghanistan borders, and disagrees with the strategy of a surge to defeat the Taliban.

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Pakistani officials argue that such a negotiating strategy can't work unless the rebel leadership is involved, right up to Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the most dangerous insurgent faction, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed founder of the Afghan Taliban and Osama bin Laden's ally and host.

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Because Pakistan is a longtime patron of the Taliban and of the Haqqani network, Pakistani officials think they could broker a deal to reduce Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a figurehead leader and divide power between the Pashtun Taliban and Afghanistan's Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities.

US and some Pakistani officials, however, are skeptical, arguing that the Taliban have little incentive to negotiate when their strength and sway in Afghanistan is growing and public and international support for the US-led war in Afghanistan is waning.

Najmuddin Shaikh, formerly the top bureaucrat in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, said the Taliban could be brought to the negotiating table if they saw a greater American military commitment and more investments in the Afghan countryside.

"It's a little premature for talks [with the Taliban]," Shaikh said. "There has to be a change in the ground situation, things happening in the next six to eight months that shows the 'ink spots' strategy – [McChrystal's idea of protecting Afghan population centers] – is taking hold, that some foot soldiers are being weaned away, then talks become possible."

Nevertheless, behind the scenes talks with mid-level Taliban officials already have begun, and Pakistani officials think they could rapidly accelerate now that Karzai has begun his second term.

"We've already been talking to them [the Taliban]," said a senior Pakistani official in Islamabad, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "If the US helps the process, some arrangements can be worked out for political reconciliation. I'm not for a moment suggesting that it's an easy task, but otherwise you will be fighting these people for the next hundred years."

Money talks

The United States and other NATO forces also favor talking to some Taliban, but they focus on "non-ideological" insurgents who can be peeled away, partly through bribery. Retired British general Graeme Lamb was appointed for this task in August, but so far the effort has produced little success.

"The Americans have wasted a lot of time over this 'moderate Taliban' idea. It is never going to pan out. It misunderstands the Taliban phenomenon," said Simbal Khan, an analyst at Institute of Strategic Studies, a policy institute funded by the Pakistani government. "If you try to break off elements with cash, they'll take your money and still fight you."

Pakistan worries about India, not Al Qaeda

The Pakistani military and ISI still consider arch rival India, not militant Islam, the main threat, and unlike US officials, Pakistani officials distinguish between the Taliban and other militant groups whose target is Afghanistan and groups that are seeking to impose their extreme brand of Islam on Pakistan.

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