by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

Fighting terrorists and insurgents resembles dental care: If you ignore the cavity, it doesn’t get better on its own. The sooner you’re lying back in the chair, the less painful it’s going to be.

Last month, Pakistan finally and belatedly admitted to itself that its terrorist problem had spread so deeply that at least one bad tooth had to be pulled. The military went into the Taliban-occupied Swat Valley in force.

After years of neglect and rot, the apparent determination of Pakistan’s leaders to really take on the terrorists was reassuring. And Islamabad didn’t flinch, despite grim fighting and a refugee exodus from the war zone.

Pakistan’s generals claim to have reestablished control over most of Swat, while killing more than 1,200 Islamist fanatics. Even applying the intelligence-officer’s rule of dividing all reported enemy-casualty figures by two, the Pak military hurt the Taliban deeply.

And al Qaeda’s been squealing about Pakistan doing America’s bidding, which is a great sign. Obviously, the cave-condo crowd up along the Afghan border is frightened that the Paks truly are serious.

As a result, I intended to write a column congratulating Pakistan’s government on finally “getting it,” encouraging the country’s leaders to keep the pressure on our mutual enemies and, after catching a quick breath, to push beyond Swat into the frontier regions.

Then, on Tuesday, the Paks made a stinking mess: After murky court proceedings, the government released a terrorist chieftain, Hafiz Sayeed, the creator of Lashkar i-Taiba, the Islamist group behind the gruesome terror attacks in Mumbai last November.

The Indians are, justifiably, outraged. Once again, Pakistan protected a terrorist, knowing that we’ll protect Pakistan.

We’re dumber than dirt. Our leaders still don’t grasp that the biggest hurdle for the Pakistani government in fighting the Taliban and its affiliates is that Islamabad adopted the Taliban in its infancy, then nurtured and raised it.

Inevitably, the most fanatical elements in the Taliban turned against Big Daddy in Islamabad. But this is a family fight — in the sense of crime families.

When we ask Pakistan to prosecute the campaign against the Taliban to the end, we’re asking a mafia-run government to rub out the mafia. Complex interests are intertwined. Too many Islamist goodfellas know too much.

Which is a key reason why Hafiz Sayeed — a beard over a bloated belly — walked free. He knows too much and has too much power. Nobody wants him going stooge on the witness stand. And the notorious Inter-Services-Intelligence directorate still has uses for him. Trust me, the ISI has other hits in mind.

Pakistan’s intelligence services are so tied to terrorists that they now seem unsure of their basic loyalties.

India’s outraged. Pakistan’s smirking. Terror’s thriving. We’re daydreaming.

Despite the Taliban’s advance to within 60 miles of Pakistan’s capital this spring, elements within Islamabad’s power structure still think they can work deals with “their” terrorists. But poisonous snakes just don’t make affectionate pets.

Pakistan’s strategy is to exploit the United States for everything it can, and to wreck Washington’s improved relations with New Delhi — a huge threat to Islamabad’s con game. The release of that terrorist capo wasn’t a legal decision, but a statement of policy.

Human beings routinely let their cherished illusions trump facts. It’s true of us, as our president crawls on his hands and knees to Saudi Arabia, imagining that our No. 1 enemy is a wonderful ally.

It’s fatefully true for Pakistan, where, despite bloody evidence to the contrary, military and political leaders persist in their belief that Islamist terrorists, whether from the Taliban, Lashkar i-Taiba or less-publicized groups, can be broken to the bit and used to advantage.

Pakistan’s own policies have set the country ablaze. Its leaders continue to bathe in gasoline. ExileStreet

NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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