U.S. policy in Pakistan is now stuck in a Catch-22 quagmire. Without Pakistan, there is no solution to the Afghan war. And even with Pakistan, the odds aren't much better.
Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Afghan border, used by Taliban as safe havens, and by U.S. drones as Taliban targets, are gradually switching allegiance to Taliban.
Chiefs of various anti-Taliban communities around Peshawar recently announced they were ending their support for the government against the terrorists. Peshawar is the capital of one of Pakistan's four provinces, previously known as the Northwest Frontier and now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
An alarmed top-ranking official in Peshawar, who asked not to be identified, called this reporter to say, "insurgents have the potential and aim to take over."
This change of heart evidently stems from the growing perception among local authorities that U.S. and Pakistani armies are pursuing contradictory objectives.
In FATA, Pakistani military units are engaged against Taliban. And in Afghanistan, as local Pakistani authorities read U.S. signals, Taliban will be brought into a coalition government by 2014 at the latest and probably much sooner.
The U.S. grand design, according to local perceptions of reality, is to continue the fight inside Pakistan, against al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Convinced the United States will be enlarging its military footprint against al-Qaida in Pakistan over the next few years, the Pakistani army is disassociating itself in advance.
As a result, word is reaching local authorities that the army is staunchly opposed to what they all seem to believe is the U.S. plan and are beginning to hedge their bets, too.
Unless these perceptions are reversed, Taliban will capture administrative areas with the cooperation of anti-Taliban factions, anxious to safeguard their own interests.
The anonymous ranking official also said there is "little or no effort made by the government to reveal the real situation to the people" as government itself is very confused between what they hear from the U.S. and from their own army."
Most of Pakistan's government ministers are unaware of the situation in the tribal areas as they have never set foot there. For most, it's far too dangerous. There is also much confusion in the administrative responsibilities.
FATA comes under the Ministry of States and Frontier Region. But FATA's seven tribal agencies are governed by the KP governor through the FATA Secretariat in Peshawar, with political agents in each agency.
As if this tangled weave weren't sufficient confusion, KP's provincial government also has a specific role in the governance of FATA. The names of the political agents appointed in FATA have to be approved by the provincial home department.
The lack of focus of the federal and provincial governments on FATA can be gauged from the recent announcement by several anti-Taliban community chiefs that they should be prepared to give up resistance to Taliban.
Leaders of the anti-Taliban lashkars private armies, including Dilawar Khan from Adezai, Fahimur Rehman from Bazid Khel, and Fazal Amin from Taila Band, all areas that partly surround Peshawar, sandwiched between the provincial capital and FATA, said they are now ready to announce the end of cooperation with the Awami National Party-led provincial government and security forces in the war on terror.
This is a critically dangerous development, apparently unnoticed in Washington, because all the lashkar private armies played an effective role in containing TTP and al-Qaida militancy and thwarting efforts to take over part of Peshawar.
The lashkars, according to their leaders, have decided on this new course of action because they say they haven't received any significant material and moral support from the provincial government and its security forces.
"In such a situation," said their chiefs, "it is extremely difficult to continue resisting Taliban, as we bear the brunt of unabated suicide and bomb attacks on our members."
Some leaders, speaking privately, said, "after withdrawal of support to the government, we will approach the Taliban and offer a 'pact' under which the Taliban from surrounding Darra Adam Khel in Kohat and Khyber Agency would not attack local people and villagers."
The KP provincial government has kept silent over the growing strength of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida in and around Peshawar. KP ministers are mum about the growing insurgency that is gnawing at Peshawar. The police chief said certain parts of Peshawar are vulnerable to a Taliban takeover.
Simultaneously in Afghanistan, talk of a timetable for U.S. and NATO withdrawal strengthened the average Afghan's belief that Taliban will prevail.
The latest edition of the biannual "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan," says this general belief is reinforced by the perception of weakness and corruption in the Afghan government.
The Taliban's strength, say longtime observers on the ground, lies in the Afghan population's perception that coalition forces will soon leave, giving credence to the general belief that a Taliban victory is inevitable.
The number of Afghans who rate their security as "bad" is the highest it has been since 2008. Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his subordinate commanders are ordering rank and file not to interfere with the infrastructure being built by allied forces.
"When we're back in power," said one local Taliban chief to European reporters, "the caliphate does not wish to rebuild the country again."
In Pakistan proper, religious leaders, after their election defeat three years ago, are back in the game. Their leader and currently Pakistan's most formidable opposition figure and anti-U.S. standard-bearer (who spent 10 years in exile in Saudi Arabia) is Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif's followers claim they are ready for a triumph at the polls — or a "bloody revolution."
Pakistan's Taliban leaders say they would support a religious coalition led by Sharif that they claim would also have the covert financial backing of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi clergy. This draws a blistering denial from the kingdom.
But the Saudis are anxious to stay close to Pakistan as one of the world's nine nuclear powers — as a potential deterrent to Iran's gathering nuclear thunder across the Persian Gulf.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.
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