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Musharraf Pullout From Afghan-Pakistan Tribal Conference Puzzles Analysts


Tribal leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan are expected to meet in Kabul Thursday to discuss the growing problem of extremist violence in both countries. The two countries' presidents were to inaugurate the conference. But for reasons that are still unclear, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf decided at the last minute not to attend.

In Focus, VOA's Gary Thomas looks at President Musharraf's withdrawal and the prospects for concrete results from the meeting.

The idea of a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, on extremist violence was developed last year in meetings in Washington between President Bush, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The jirga was seen as a way of not only trying to solve the problem of terrorism, but also of soothing tensions raised by a war of words between the Afghan and Pakistani leaders about attacks in Afghanistan by resurgent Taleban militants. Afghanistan blames Pakistan for failing to take tough action to clean out militant strongholds, while Pakistan says the Taleban is an Afghan problem.

So President Musharraf's decision not to go to the conference and to send Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in his place was a puzzle and a surprise.

Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States Said Tayeb Jawad tells VOA that President Karzai did his utmost to get his Pakistani counterpart to change his mind, pointing out that President Musharraf promised on numerous occasions to personally attend the meeting and that his presence there was important.

"The participation of President Musharraf as the leader of Pakistan in this grand convention and assembly of people of Pakistan and Afghanistan has its unique significance. In the phone conversation that took place, President Karzai told his friend President Musharraf that his presence and prestige will add to the significance of this forum. We know that President Musharraf was eager to participate; he has confirmed his participation on numerous occasions in the past. But we also understand if special circumstances require his personal presence in Islamabad," he said.

The official reason given for President Musharraf's absence is that he had "engagements in the capital" Islamabad. But what was the real reason?

Former Pakistani diplomat and political advisor Husain Haqqani, now Director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, says it was probably a combination of domestic political concerns and diplomatic displeasure, particularly with the United States.

Domestic Politics

"General Musharraf is clearly occupied with domestic political developments. He's in a very weak position at the moment. And at this moment, he's also upset with the United States and with President Karzai of Afghanistan on statements that basically question his commitment to the war against terrorism. So it's probably a combination of these factors," he said.

Kamran Bokhari, Middle East director of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, agrees. "There is this domestic political situation which is forcing Musharraf to sort of put everything else on the back burner, he's got too many different problems at home to deal with. I'm not ruling that out as a major factor behind him saying, 'I'm not going to show up.' But definitely, there's that other side to it as well -- sending a message to the U.S.," he said.

Senior U.S. officials have stepped up criticism of what they view as less-than-robust efforts by Pakistan to clean out extremist safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas. These officials have refused to rule out the possibility of unilateral U.S. attacks on the safe havens if Pakistan does not get tougher with the militants.

On Tuesday, President Musharraf called such talk "counterproductive" and criticized calls by some U.S. legislators to link U.S. aid to Pakistan's counter-terrorist efforts.

Pakistan-Kabul Relations

Analysts say Pakistan has not been particularly happy with the current administration in Kabul. During a recent visit to the United States, Owais Ahmed Ghani, governor of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, sharply criticized the Karzai government. "The Karzai government is failing administratively and politically due to Karzai's weak political and tribal base, and, as we see it, an absence of a positive political strategy," he said.

Ghani says there should be a new political and social structure in Afghanistan, and the Taleban should be included. "It needs to be built in Afghanistan around an acceptable political power-sharing formula which will provide political space to all Afghan groups. It must include all Afghan groups, whether they have long beards or short beards or no beards at all. But they have to be accommodated in that political dispensation. That is the only way forward," he said.

Ghani, who met with key members of the U.S. Congress, an unusual reception for someone who is not a national political figure, says the Taleban and al-Qaida are separate and different, and should therefore be treated differently.

But Boston University's Husain Haqqani says that when it comes to fighting Islamic extremism, there is no real difference between al-Qaida and the Taleban. "I think there is a very strong faction of the Taleban that is more or less acting in conjunction with al-Qaida. And to try to differentiate between them at this stage is not necessarily going to solve the problem of terrorism in either Afghanistan or Pakistan," he said.

Some 700 delegates are accredited to the so-called "peace jirga." However, perhaps as many as 100 delegates from Pakistan's tribal areas will not attend, either out of displeasure with the jirga's aims or fear of reprisal from pro-Taleban elements when they return home.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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