Davos Report: The Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontline

World Economic Forum Annual Meetings at Davos were once described to me as "the Disneyland of the Mind." The description seems apt. Interspersed with interesting rounds of discussion that have all the thrill of exciting theme park rides, one also runs into Mickey Mouse and Goofy.

The shadow of Mickey Mouse became visible at this year's meeting when Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz denied flat out that Pakistan had anything to do with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A smooth talking former executive of Citibank who was handpicked by General Pervez Musharraf to manage Pakistan's economy, Aziz speaks eloquently without passion. Unfortunately, his eloquence on the subject of fighting terrorism had little to do with reality.

Most sensible people now agree that while the war in Iraq was a war of choice, the real frontline in the struggle against terrorism are Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the world's energies have been consumed by the U.S. war of choice in Iraq, leaving the war of necessity in Afghanistan inadequately attended.

The Taliban, whom the U.S. vowed to destroy after 9/11, have regrouped and are increasingly threatening security in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, is also seriously back in business.

New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall found out the hard way recently that finding out too much about the Taliban's presence in Pakistan's provinces bordering Afghanistan can result in a thrashing from Pakistan ubiquitous intelligence services.

Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, a retired general, commented yesterday that Gall should not have gone "snooping" in areas she was not permitted to visit. He does not seem to realize that snooping is what good reporters are supposed to do.

The ambassador also did not explain why there were so many areas in Pakistan, especially along the Afghan border, that are closed to visiting journalists unless there is something there to hide.

Afghanistan is fast becoming a serious security problem and Pakistan's desire to influence the course of events in its smaller neighbor is not helping. Only yesterday, Pakistan withdrew diplomatic immunity from NATO personnel transiting Pakistan on their way to Afghanistan.

The decision is an attempt to shut up NATO and UN officials in Afghanistan, who have all criticized Pakistan's support for the Taliban.

Until recently U.S. officials have been reluctant to criticize Pakistan's military ruler General Musharraf. President Bush has convinced himself that Musharraf is the only thing standing between an Islamist take-over of nuclear armed Pakistan and has consistently showered praise since 9/11 on the Pakistani ruler whose name he did not recall in a television interview during the 2000 election campaign.

But the outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, in testimony to a Senate committee earlier this month, wrote that Al Qaeda leaders were holed up in a secure hide-out in Pakistan, without naming bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Aziz's remarks at the Davos panel on terrorism were designed to control the damage that has followed from Negroponte's statement.

Aziz denied that bin Laden or Zawahiri were in Pakistan and insisted that no one had shared any intelligence with Pakistan about the whereabouts of Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai claims that Afghan intelligence has passed on information about the alleged location of Taliban leaders, only to be told by Pakistani officials that the intelligence was out of date. Obviously, the Taliban leaders do not maintain an address listed in the Peshawar or Islamabad phone books.

Aziz was right though when he said that it is not in Pakistan's interest to support the Taliban. But Pakistan's military governments, particularly its intelligence services, have a long history of pursuing strategic policies that have been detrimental to the country's interests.

Military rule, however benign it might seem to outsiders, leads to group think rather than genuine discussion of alternatives. Pakistan's foreign policy has suffered from military group think that gives priority to keeping Indian influence out of Afghanistan over fighting terrorists and the obscurantist Taliban.

It would have been nice to have Afghan President Hamid Karzai present the alternative view on Afghanistan here at Davos. And just as we had an extensive discussion of Iraq, with several Iraqis present, a wider discussion of Afghanistan is also needed.