Afghanistan and Pakistan scramble for the favor of Al Qaeda

As the US military presence winds down, Afghan leaders are hedging their bets, looking to protect themselves. Like allying with the very groups the US ousted in 2001. Messy? You bet.

The US war in Afghanistan could turn into a pumpkin as soon as the middle of November.

That's when a national meeting of tribal leaders and other notable Afghans will hold a so-called loya jirga and vote on whether to meet the Obama administration's terms for keeping troops in the country beyond the end of 2014.

If they vote no, it will all be over but the packing, shipping, and destroying of military infrastructure. Whatever the Afghans decide about an extended US presence, the US involvement in offensive operations is sure to decline, just as its role in "nation building" is winding down. That means Afghans have gaps to fill when it comes to influence and power projection.

As the New York Times reported on Tuesday, the US-installed and -supported Afghan government is wasting little time. The plan? Make friends with the Pakistani Taliban and what's left of Al Qaeda's network in Pakistan.

According to the article, which cites unnamed US and Afghan officials, the government of President Hamid Karzai is courting the Pakistani Taliban, who are close to what's left of Al Qaeda in region, as a way to counterbalance the Pakistani military's support for the Afghan Taliban.

The story began with the US military's arrest of Latif Mehsud, a senior Pakistani Taliban member. At the time the arrest was announced earlier this month, the Karzai government put out the story that Mr. Mehsud was in Afghanistan to negotiate a prisoner swap. There were also suggestions that he was being approached as go-between for peace talks. 

But the Times story says the actual purpose of Mehsud's visit was to promise aid to the Pakistani Taliban in their fight. It's a cheap way for Afghanistan to project force and influcence inside Pakistan and, in theory, make Pakistan more amenable to Afghan positions at future negotiations.

Now, not content to be merely the target of a proxy war, the Afghan government decided to recruit proxies of its own by seeking to aid the Pakistan Taliban in their fight against Pakistan’s security forces, according to Afghan officials. And they were beginning to make progress over the past year, they say, before the American raid exposed them.

Although Afghan anger over the raid has been an open issue since it was revealed in news reports this month, it is only now that the full purpose of the Afghan operation that prompted the raid has been detailed by American and Afghan officials. Those officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss secret intelligence matters.

The story is thoroughly plausible. Karzai's fear about Pakistani designs in Afghanistan has been one of the issues in the drawn-out negotiations over an extended US military presence. Karzai has been pressing for US security guarantees with respect to the Pakistanis. While talks have not really gotten anywhere yet, Karzai and others in the government have been more than happy to reach out to the Afghan Taliban, recognizing them as a political force and military force that aren't going away. Earlier this month Karzai said he'd like to bring the Taliban into a power-sharing government in Kabul.

America's and Karzai's interests haven't been aligned for years. The US said it wanted to establish a democracy in Afghanistan, but what's resulted has been rigged elections awash in drug money and the halls of parliament filled with warlords.

Even so, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better illustration of the futility and dysfunction of the current US effort than the Afghan government up to a direct Al Qaeda ally.  The Pakistani Taliban have sought to hit US interests abroad: the US government has accused the group of being behind a failed car-bomb attack on New York's Times Square in 2010, and has also claimed that Mehsud was personally involved.

The stated purpose of the US war against the Taliban following Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 was to remove the Afghan government that had given safe-haven to Al Qaeda and replace it with one that would never harbor a movement bent on attacking the US again. Now, the Afghan government, installed on the back of US tanks, is negotiating a friendship with precisely those sorts of people.

To be sure, it all makes a certain amount of sense from an Afghan perspective. They'll seek advantage in their tough and violent neighborhood wherever they can find it. Looking to Pakistan, they probably find few reasons not to.

During the long US-led war in Afghanistan, Pakistan's military has provided aid and occasionally direct support to Taliban units who were killing US troops, yet the flow of US military aid to Pakistan - and intelligence cooperation on going after militants inside Pakistan - was unabated. When the US determined that Osama bin Laden was hiding it in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, a short distance from the country's capital, it couldn't trust Pakistan enough to inform them of a pending raid. Yet doubts about possible Pakistani military assistance to Bin Laden have not curtailed the relationship with the US.

So Karzai's bet is that there wouldn't be much in the way of repercussions for working with the Pakistani Taliban. Going on the history of the last decade, he's probably right.

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