A Risky Feud

Summit meetings are meant to improve relations. But two recent high-level confabs--one in February between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Pervez Musharraf, and the other U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Islamabad earlier this month--have had the opposite effect. For the cameras, both looked like the usual well-scripted, feel-good affairs--but in fact they've laid bare a serious rift between Afghanistan and Pakistan, America's two key allies in the global war on terror.

With the Taliban staging a gradual resurgence in Afghanistan, Karzai has been sniping at Musharraf for months, charging that the Pakistani president is not doing enough to defeat armed radicals who hide out and train along the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border. More important, Karzai apparently won Bush over to his skeptical point of view during his brief visit to Kabul prior to the U.S. president's arrival in Islamabad. "After Bush's visit, Afghan officials were very happy and confident," says Pakistani author and Afghan expert Ahmed Rashid. "The Americans privately came down on Karzai's side." Indeed, Musharraf seemed visibly shaken when he stood beside the U.S. president at their March 4 joint press conference and heard Bush say that he had come to Islamabad "to determine whether or not the president is as committed as he has been in the past" to the war on terror. According to Pakistani officials, Bush essentially lectured his host on the need to get tougher on the Taliban. "Musharraf got a big rap on the knuckles from Bush for not doing enough," confirms Rashid.

Musharraf was quick to lash back. After Bush left Islamabad, he blasted Karzai in a --CNN interview, lambasting the Afghan leader for being "totally oblivious" to what was going on in Pakistan. Musharraf also said recent intelligence supplied by Kabul to Pakistan, including phone numbers and the whereabouts of Taliban officials, was "outdated," "nothing" and "nonsense." He advised Karzai to put his own house in order before criticizing Pakistan.

Whether or not Karzai's complaints are valid, his constant criticism of Musharraf is a risky move. A prolonged feud could hurt Pakistan, jeopardizing its large aid package from America. But Afghanistan might be crippled if the quarrel gets out of hand. An alienated Musharraf could make life easier for the guerrillas, and Afghanistan can ill afford to lose Pakistan's crucial economic and military support. The landlocked country's economy is weak and heavily dependent on trade and skilled laborers from Pakistan. Some 60,000 Pakistanis work in Afghanistan, among them 10,000 people who cross the border daily. Afghanistan's few legal exports, such as vegetables and fruits, largely go to its southern neighbor; its crucial imports--including food, construction materials and other essential supplies--come from there. "Our economic situation is not strong enough to survive a serious dispute with Pakistan," admits a senior Afghan diplomat. As things stand now, the feud's only beneficiaries could be the Taliban, who in recent months have stepped up attacks in Afghanistan. "We are enjoying and benefiting from this fight," Mansoor, a Taliban activist and former minister, told NEWSWEEK. "May it continue, God willing."

Taliban pressure, in fact, is what pushed Karzai to speak out. Since last summer, there have been some 25 suicide bombings in Afghanistan, including one early this year that killed more than a dozen people at Spin Buldak, a trading town on the frontier. That bombing and others sparked a wave of anti-Pakistani public protests. "There has been a groundswell of anger at and mistrust of Pakistan," says Rashid.

Musharraf deeply resents the idea that he is soft on the Taliban or its support network. He frequently points out that he has stationed some 80,000 troops in the tribal agencies along the border, ostensibly to prevent the Taliban and Al Qaeda from using Pakistan as a base for cross-border raids into Afghanistan. Last week some of those soldiers engaged in prolonged gun battles with a force of largely local, pro-Taliban tribal insurgents that killed more than 100 people, including troops, tribal militants and civilians in and around the Pakistani town of Miran Shah.

When Karzai met with Musharraf in Islamabad, he presented him with a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of Taliban officials, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, who were allegedly living in Pakistan. He also provided details of supposed Taliban training camps and guerrilla bases located inside Pakistan. One senior Pakistani official described the meeting as "tense," adding that the two leaders largely exchanged "accusations and counteraccusations."

Musharraf didn't dismiss the intelligence data Karzai gave him. In fact, he had his powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency check it out. The spy agency reported back that the information was inaccurate. The Pakistani president was even more angered by the fact that Karzai held a meeting with journalists during his Islamabad trip and relayed to them much the same information that he'd presented to Musharraf earlier.

In an ironic turnabout, Musharraf now accuses Kabul of not doing enough to control its side of the border. He charges that Taliban fighters from Afghanistan have entered the North Waziristan tribal region to reinforce pro-Taliban Pakistani militants who are fighting the Pakistan Army. In addition, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, the ISI has intercepted radio transmissions from rebellious tribal leaders in the resource-rich Pakistani province of Baluchistan to Afghan officials, asking them for arms to fight the Pakistani Army. These sources say the ISI believes that India, Pakistan's traditional enemy, is helping to arm the Baluchistan Liberation Army, a small, independence-minded guerrilla outfit, with the connivance of Afghan officials. Pakistan, which has long seen Afghanistan as being within its sphere of influence, is worried about India's cozy relations with Kabul and its growing clout. In 2003, New Delhi set up consulates in the Afghan cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar, right in Pakistan's backyard. India has also posted some 300 military commandos to southern Afghanistan ostensibly to protect its road construction crews, and extended economic aid, including fleets of buses and several used Boeing and Airbus passenger jets.

Washington is hoping that both sides will resume a civil and constructive dialogue; there is simply too much is at stake to let the animosity linger. Already Kabul is girding for a spring push by a seemingly stronger, more determined enemy. To avert disaster, both these newfound enemies need to start searching for common ground.