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Opinion: Doomed to disagree

Why Pakistan and the US see the Taliban through different lenses.

Armed men, who recently returned to their village after a military offensive against the Taliban, walk past a school girl while providing security in Buner district about 220 km (137 miles) by road from Pakistan's capital Islamabad on August 10, 2009. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

BOSTON — It’s been clear for years that Pakistan and the United States are not in full agreement about the nature of the extremist threat or the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. is at war with the Taliban because it once harbored Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda gang. But in Pakistan’s view, the Taliban was a useful creation to bring stability to warlord-torn Afghanistan after the Soviets left, and it might be useful again once the Americans leave, as every other foreign power has done after trying and failing to subdue the Afghans by force. 

When the U.S. failed to capture either the Taliban or Al Qaeda’s top leadership back in 2001, the extremists moved their operation over the border into Pakistan to set up shop in the mountains and border towns of the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Thus, as many Pakistanis see it, the U.S. war in Afghanistan simply swept the extremists over the border into Pakistan. And Pakistan is afraid that the Obama troop surge will drive even more militants its way, creating ever more problems for Pakistan. Instead of going into Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, and then leaving, the U.S. has undertaken to create a modern and unified pro-Western state. This gives new life to the once-defeated Taliban who can now claim to be fighting to free Afghanistan from foreigners. Whereas many of Afghanistan’s other tribal groups had their own militias, many Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and who make up Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, came to look upon the Taliban as representing Pashtun interests.

Right after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. confronted Pakistan with a “with us or against us” ultimatum, which Pakistan accepted. Pakistan would join the U.S. in the fight against extremist Islam, but not as the Americans would want it. Pakistan was able and willing to capture and hand over Al Qaeda operatives, who were mostly Arabs and foreigners, but was less willing to turn its military might on its own citizens — especially in the frontier regions where the central government’s writ has always been tenuous.

Pakistan inherited the tribal territories from the British — self-ruling regions on the Northwest frontier that did not answer to central authority as other regions did. A quarter of a century ago I took a train from Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, to the top of the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border. I noticed that armed tribesmen getting on and off the train in the tribal territories did not have to buy a ticket. I asked a heavily armed tribal commuter why. “This is my ticket,” the tribesman said, slapping his rifle. The Pakistanis who live in those frontier areas consider themselves Pashtuns first and Pakistani only because of an accident of borders. Pakistan was, and is, reluctant to alienate the tribes.