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Q+A: U.S. cables underscore anxiety over Pakistan militants

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistle-blower WikiLeaks highlight deep American concerns over long-term Muslim militancy in Pakistan, which Washington regards as vital to defeating a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Here are some questions and answers on the issues raised by the dispatches, which appeared on the website of Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

HOW GRAVE IS THE THREAT TO PAKISTAN?

A February 21, 2009 cable by U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson sent just before a United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue meeting said:

“We should be clear that al-Qaeda (AQ) now wants more than just a safe-haven in Pakistan, and defeating a growing witches’ brew of AQ, Taliban, local extremists and criminals will be a long 10-15 year fight. (Pakistani President Asif Ali) Zardari has summed it up by saying, ‘the militants now are after me and my job’.”

CAN MILITANTS TOPPLE THE GOVERNMENT?

Highly unlikely. Pakistan’s powerful army may be resisting U.S. pressure to go after Afghan Taliban militants who cross the border to attack Western troops in Afghanistan, but a direct threat to its hold on power is a different game altogether.

The army has not been able to crush al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban militants in the tribal, lawless northwest border region; mainly due to forbidding mountain terrain, their sheer determination and ability to melt away during offensives.

To take over, the militants would have to make strides in major cities, not just carry out suicide bombings there as they do now. Any signs of that would invite overwhelming military force. Unless senior army officers decide to join up with militant groups in a takeover bid -- which analysts all but rule out -- there is little chance of major change. The military already dominates the country so generals have no logical reason to switch sides.

Nevertheless, militancy reinforces the view that nuclear-armed Pakistan is unstable, and keeps foreign investors away.

WHERE DO ORDINARY PAKISTANIS STAND?

Few Pakistanis want army rule again, though most respect the military and have little faith in security forces.

The Pakistani Taliban and other groups have won over some Pakistanis by persuading them jihad is a better option than unemployment and poverty. But they have angered a far larger number of people with their interpretation of Islam and methods of enforcing it, including public whippings, executions and bombings of hundreds of girls’ schools.

In the northwest -- the epicenter of Pakistan’s militancy -- the population is often caught between both sides. As the Patterson cable points out, “the population is fed up with both indiscriminate Army shelling and Taliban-imposed terror.”

HOW MUCH DOES MILITANCY STRAIN U.S.-PAKISTANI TIES?

It’s one of the most sensitive issues in often uneasy ties between Washington and Islamabad.

Critics accuse Pakistan of playing a double game.

It promises Washington -- the source of billions of dollars in military aid -- it will help defeat militants. Yet Pakistan refuses to fight groups such as the pro-Afghan Taliban Haqqani network, which is high on the United States’ hit list.

There are sound reasons why Pakistan keeps its options open.

It fears U.S. interest in the region will fade rapidly after U.S. troops start pulling out of Afghanistan in 2011 and it could be left with chaos next door.

That’s what happened after defeated Soviet occupation troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Pakistan wants to keep the Haqqanis as a strategic asset in Afghanistan to counter the growing influence of rival India there.

“Pakistan hedges its bets on cooperation because it fears the U.S. will again desert Islamabad after we get Osama Bin Laden; Washington sees this hesitancy as duplicity that requires we take unilateral action to protect U.S. interests,” said Patterson.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

(For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here)

E-mail: michael.georgy@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: michael.georgy@thomsonreuters.com; Islamabad newsroom: +92-281-0016/7 If you have a query or comment about this story, send an e-mail to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com

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