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Skepticism Remains on Pakistani Anti-Taliban Efforts

The U.S. offensive in the Afghan town of Marjah coincides with new Pakistani moves against Afghan Taliban figures, which U.S. officials say aids counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. But there is still skepticism about Islamabad's depth of commitment to rooting out the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan.

Afghan Taliban leaders have been using Pakistani territory as a sanctuary and staging ground from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have long asserted that operations in Kandahar and Helmand Province, where Marjah is located, are directed from the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who chaired the Obama administration's Afghan policy review, said as recently as last year Pakistani officials continued to deny the presence of Afghan Taliban figures on their soil.

"When I was chairing the strategic review this month a year ago we asked the Pakistanis at the highest levels, 'Are there any Taliban leaders in Pakistan?' And from the highest levels on down they were adamant, 'There are no Taliban leaders in Pakistan, if you have information give it to us.' Well, we finally called their bluff," Riedel said.

In recent weeks, Pakistani officials have captured at least 15 Afghan Taliban figures. Afghan Taliban operations chief Mullah Baradar was arrested recently in Karachi, although the circumstances of the arrest remain murky about whether Baradar was picked up more by accident than design.

However it came about, Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution, says the arrests in Pakistan are a boon to U.S. and NATO efforts in Marjah and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

"The arrest of Mullah Baradar, the follow-on arrests of shadow governors, is probably the single biggest victory we have seen in nine years in this conflict," Riedel said. "If it is followed up by continued movements by the Pakistanis to start shutting down the sanctuary and the safe haven that will be a significant boost for the prospects for success."

But skepticism abounds about how deep Pakistan's commitment to rooting out the Afghan Taliban runs. Pakistan has a long record of supporting the Afghan Taliban, primarily through its Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.

Pakistan has traditionally seen the Afghan Taliban as a way of maintaining influence in Afghanistan. That is why, analysts say, the Afghan Taliban has been able to operate from Pakistani soil.

Professor Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says Pakistan watches arch-rival India's growing influence in Afghanistan and its newfound closer relationship with the United States, as epitomized in the U.S.-India nuclear deal, with alarm.

"Now you cannot tell me that the Pakistanis can sit there and watch the first state dinner be with (Indian Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh, and the nuclear agreement with India, and all of what they perceive as happening with India and Afghanistan, and have them say, 'Oh, okay, we will go along with what the United States wants us to do," Goodson said.

In such an atmosphere, Goodson says, Islamabad wants to maintain the Afghan Taliban as its strategic hedge against India.

"They [Pakistanis] cannot use the nuclear weapons, and their conventional force has never been successful against India," Goodson said. "And so they have to maintain these guys [Taliban], and that comes with a certain amount of messiness and cost. Now they are trying to control them, and we are putting them under a lot of pressure. But to me, anyway, I would say it is obvious that those folks in Washington who are putting the pressure on, agitating for the pressure and so forth, would like to believe that the pressure is working."

Analysts say Pakistan looks to any future political reconciliation in Afghanistan to include Taliban elements, but the prospect of the Taliban in any power-sharing arrangement in Kabul is worrisome to the Indians.

The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan held their first round of peace talks Thursday, which had stalled since the terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in November of 2008. The attacks have been blamed on Lashkar-i-Taiba, a militant group based in Pakistan.