Pakistani Leader Seeks to Mend Fences With Kabul

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 7, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 6 -- Pakistan's president Wednesday strongly defended his day-old peace pact with Taliban militants and, standing next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai here, made an impassioned plea to repair their stormy relations and combat the "common enemy" of terrorism and Taliban ideology.

Speaking outside Kabul's presidential palace, Gen. Pervez Musharraf acknowledged that the new truce with Islamic militants based in Pakistan's tribal border region had caused "misgivings" in neighboring Afghanistan, where government forces and 10,000 NATO troops are fending off a fierce armed offensive by hundreds of Taliban insurgents.

But the Pakistani leader, on a fence-mending visit to the Afghan capital, said he would not hesitate to act militarily if the Taliban forces reneged on the pact, which calls on them to end armed attacks inside Pakistan and to stop crossing into Afghanistan to fight against the Karzai government and international troops.

The agreement also requires foreign militants to leave the tribal area of North Waziristan or take up a peaceable life there, and it prohibits local Islamic extremist groups from enforcing draconian religious notions such as requiring men to grow long beards or destroying audio and video equipment.

"We have to fight al-Qaeda, we have to fight the Taliban, and we have to fight Talibanization," Musharraf said. "The bottom line is . . . no al-Qaeda, no foreigners acting in our areas, no training activities, no Taliban actions on our side of the border or in Afghanistan, no Talibanization of society."

The Pakistani general, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, wore a gray business suit for the visit. He said that he hoped the problem of Islamic militancy could be solved through negotiations, adding that military actions could only buy time. But he stressed that "we are not leaving the military side at all. Any militant action will be addressed with force."

Musharraf referred to Karzai repeatedly as his "brother" and brought along a number of Pakistani officials who share Karzai's ethnic Pashtun origin. He said that the two leaders of neighboring Muslim countries faced a common threat and that their only option was to stop criticizing each other, build a relationship of trust and cooperate to fight Islamic terrorism and extremism.

Karzai's response was less effusive but cordial, as he welcomed Musharraf and a large delegation of Pakistani officials to his palace with an honor guard and a brass band. After the two men met privately, Karzai described their discussions as "constructive" and said he hoped that soon "all obstacles that have affected our relations will be removed."

The friendly and respectful atmosphere of the visit was a dramatic shift from recent months, when the two leaders angrily attacked each other from afar. Karzai has repeatedly accused Pakistan of being a source of shelter and support for the revived Taliban insurgency, which has carried out suicide bombings and assassinations. Musharraf has heatedly denied the allegations and accused Karzai of knowing nothing about his own country.

Many Afghans remain skeptical of Pakistan's intentions toward them because of its past interference in Afghan politics. They doubt Musharraf's willingness to seriously crack down on Islamic militancy because his government formally supported Taliban rule in Kabul until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and later formed a domestic political alliance with Pakistani religious parties.

In telephone interviews, Afghan officials in several provinces bordering Pakistan said they feared the new pact would allow both the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies freer rein to cause trouble inside Afghanistan -- the opposite of its purported intent.

"This is not good, if Musharraf can make an agreement with the bad guys and send them into Afghanistan," said Hakim Taniwal, governor of Paktia province. "If they are not being bothered, they will have more time to infiltrate here and do what they want."

Many Pakistanis have welcomed the pact with relief after several years of conflict in the fiercely independent tribal zones, unrest that erupted after Musharraf sent tens of thousands of army troops into the region at Washington's behest in an attempt to roust al-Qaeda militants believed to be hiding in the rugged border region.

But others called the agreement a major concession to the Islamic extremists, who have been gaining influence and power in the area despite the army attacks. They said it would grant undue legitimacy to armed religious fanatics.

"This empowers the militants and turns them into a new elite," said Afrasiab Khattak, a human rights and political activist in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border. "Whatever rhetoric Musharraf indulges in in Kabul, the hard-liners have no reason to worry."

Military officials in Pakistan described the peace pact as a calculated risk that was worth taking to pacify the troubled tribal region. They also said it was a tactical move that would not undermine their larger military objectives of protecting the border and cooperating with Afghan and Western forces in the pursuit of armed extremists.

The White House played down concerns about the agreement. "There's been an implication that somehow this throws open the border area to al-Qaeda," spokesman Tony Snow told reporters in Washington. "That does not make sense for the government of Pakistan."

Snow said Pakistan "has been very cooperative in helping track down members of al-Qaeda."

On Wednesday, Musharraf said he would never allow foreign troops to operate on Pakistani territory, a pledge he has made previously.

Many Afghans have questioned the continued U.S. support for Pakistan, complaining that Washington has refrained from pressuring Musharraf to rein in the local Taliban because of his strong cooperation in pursuing al-Qaeda suspects.

But during his visit to Kabul on Wednesday, Musharraf for the first time repeatedly denounced al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the same breath, calling both a threat to modern, peaceful societies. He bristled at a question about whether Pakistan's army was too weak to take on the militants, but said he could have faced a full-fledged popular uprising if he had persisted in the military campaign.

Musharraf is scheduled later this month to travel to the United States, where he will attend the U.N. General Assembly and meet with officials in Washington. His visit to Kabul was arranged at the last minute, and Pakistani officials said he had sought a chance to explain his new policy toward the Taliban to Afghan officials and society.

Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company