Dinner Plus Riot Act at the White House

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President George W. Bush conducts a joint press conference with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf in the East Room of the White House September 22, 2006.

President Bush shouldn't expect much mirth and bonhomie around the dinner table Wednesday when he hosts Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. While both guests are considered key U.S. allies at the very epicenter of the war on al-Qaeda, neither man considers the other a friend, or even an ally. Karzai accuses Pakistan of enabling the massive Taliban resurgence inside Afghanistan — which has left his fledgling democratic administration unable to function as an effective government in much of the country. On Tuesday, he called on Musharraf to close the radical Islamic madrassa schools in Pakistan whose graduates are ready-made recruits for extremists. His charge that the Taliban insurgency works out of Pakistan is backed by NATO, which underestimated the scale of the challenge when it took over Afghan counterinsurgency duties from the U.S., but it is strenuously denied by Musharraf, who claims that Karzai has disenfranchised the majority Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan.

When Musharraf's government, earlier this month, concluded a non-aggression pact with local pro-Taliban militants in the tribal province of Waziristan — long considered a likely hiding place of Osama bin Laden and other key al-Qaeda leaders — NATO leaders were as furious as Karzai. Reports that the deal had been brokered in part by exiled Taliban leader Mullah Omar only deepened the sense that Pakistan had, in effect, made a separate peace with the Taliban. Key NATO countries whose troops are fighting a hot war with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan — Britain, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands — actually considered issuing an ultimatum to Musharraf to either close down the Taliban and arrest its leaders operating from Pakistan, or face the consequences. Instead, they opted to leave the matter for President Bush to deal with at Wednesday's dinner.

The debate among the NATO countries was instructive: They agree that Pakistan should be pressured to end its backing of the Taliban and arrest Taliban commanders who operate openly in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, where, NATO says, the command, control and logistical center of the Taliban insurgency is based. But Britain cautioned against openly confronting and pressuring Pakistan, reminding the others of the critical importance of its intelligence cooperation in foiling al-Qaeda plots, most recently the scheme to blow up airliners over the Atlantic.

The balance between Pakistan's all-important cooperation in the war on al-Qaeda and its support, whether active or tacit, for the Taliban in Afghanistan neatly sums up the deadly game played by Musharraf ever since 9/11. Pakistan had nurtured the Taliban in the early '90s, and then actively helped it fight its way to power in Kabul. Not only was there a natural affinity between the ethnic Pashtun movement and Pakistan's own Pashtun communities in the westernmost provinces that had helped support the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad, but Pakistan saw the Taliban as a protector of its own regional interests, particularly in light of Indian support for its rivals in the Northern Alliance.

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