By Arnaud de Borchgrave The Washington Times

Fickle friends and strong enemies at the same time is the hard-to-decipher mojo at either end of the Pakistan-U.S. strategic relationship. Each time relations are said to have reached rock bottom, someone, somewhere continues to dig.

President George W. Bush elevated Pakistan to “major non-NATO ally” in 2004. Pakistan’s homegrown terrorists and their military backers gleefully ignored the promotion as they covertly continued to back Taliban in Afghanistan.

U.S. policymakers and roving ambassadors never quite captured the essence of the misalliance. Ever since Pakistan was carved out of India 64 years ago to become an independent Muslim state, the relationship has oscillated between love and hate, seldom at the same time for both.

Section S of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency operates pretty much as a state within a state with plausible deniability. Those selected by a supersecret fraternity for service in Section S after they officially retire from ISI aren’t known to the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, or the ISI chief, Gen. Shuja Pasha.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari speaks what he believes to be the truth when he dismisses “S” as a figment of fevered James Bondish imaginations in America.

But when a Pakistani journalist writes scathing pieces about Islamist militants in the Pakistani army, he is kidnapped, and his mutilated body is found a month later.

U.S. intelligence, which demonstrated its prowess in Pakistan by discovering Osama bin Laden’s hideaway near Pakistan’s West Point and guiding a SEAL team to kill him, soon uncovered the culprit. ISI had ordered the journalist, Saleem Shahzad, 40, of the Asia Times, executed.

That wasn’t good enough for the executioners. They inflicted 17 lacerated wounds, a ruptured liver and two broken ribs.

The message to the Pakistani media: No reporting or writing on Islamist militants in the armed forces. The supertaboo: No mention of Islamist officers possibly linked to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan’s ultrasecret assistance to the Taliban fighting U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan is another proscribed topic for the media.

Slowly thawing after the May 2 killing of bin Laden, Washington’s relations with Islamabad took another vertiginous plunge.

ISI’s principal anti-U.S. talisman is retired Gen. Hamid Gul, who ran the intelligence service during the closing phases (1987-89) of the mujahedeen campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He became a bitter enemy of the United States after Washington walked away from the Afghan engagement and began punishing Pakistan for its secret development of nuclear weapons.

For 10 years, Washington banned Pakistani officers from U.S. staff schools and all manner of military training. Gen. Gul became their anti-U.S. mascot. He also was a close friend of bin Laden’s during the campaign against the Soviet army and again when the Saudi rebel returned to Afghanistan in 1996.

Gen. Gul was on a trip to Afghanistan, returning home two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. He told this reporter three weeks after 9/11, in his home in Rawalpindi, that the attacks were the work of a Mossad-CIA plot in which the U.S. Air Force was involved. Today, countless millions of Pakistanis believe the monstrous canard, as do millions of others around the world, including in the United States.

President Zardari says, “Gul is more of a political ideologue of terror rather than a physical supporter.” Translation: “I don’t dare touch him lest he order me terminated.”

U.S. diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks portray Gen. Gul as the public face of an underground Pakistani network to push the United States out of Afghanistan.

The general may yet prove useful to an Afghan denouement. He recently told Hubertus Hoffmann, president of the World Security Network: “What’s needed are direct talks between high echelons of Taliban leadership and the U.S. State Department. It shouldn’t take more than a month to set the stage. Only the U.S. should be involved with Pakistan as a facilitator. A peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan automatically provides strength and depth to Pakistan.”

Gen. Gul’s appreciation of the Taliban’s fighting strength obviously is at odds with U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus’ assessment as he leaves the theater and the Army to take over the CIA: “Taliban have grown from strength to strength over the years, from the failure of Operation Anaconda in 2003 to the fiasco of Operation Mushtarak at Marjah in Helmand province. They have become more confident, and their ranks have swelled to around 50,000 fighting men. Now that they are sensing victory, their morale is extremely high.

“Increasingly, the Afghan population is turning to them as an alternative to [President Hamid] Karzai’s corrupt and incompetent administration,” concludes Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s best Pakistani friend.

Asked whether the alliance of the Taliban and Pakistan will be renewed, an honest answer from Gen. Gul would be, “It was never discontinued.” Instead – and more interestingly – he replied: “The future government need not necessarily be exclusively Taliban. Pakistan will have to deal with whoever is in command in Kabul … and Taliban have reformed substantially compared to their earlier conduct in governance.”

Women’s rights – mangled in bloodshed while the Taliban was in power (1996-2001) – “can easily be resolved,” self-appointed Taliban spokesman Gul now says. “Islamic Shariah,” as practiced by Persian Gulf countries, is the answer. “It will take time before women can be in equal positions due to the orthodox nature of that society. Yet I see no difficulty for them to become doctors, teachers and working women in other vocations.”

Assuming such a deal could be worked out around a green baize-covered table with a Pakistani delegation sitting at a separate table as observers, that would still leave the big enchilada – a nuclear power that is providing covert assistance for planning, training and protection to extremist Islamist groups.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, trained, protected and guided by ISI’s Section S, attacked targets in Mumbai over three days in November 2008, killed 164 and wounded 308. India came close to unsheathing its nuclear sword.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and United Press International.

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