* White House considering stepping up drone attacks in Pakistan
* Analysts believe Pakistan withholding intelligence on key Afghan Taliban

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s doubts about US commitment to the Afghan war make it less likely to cooperate in targeting Taliban commanders believed to be directing the insurgency across the border.

Islamabad’s role in the war on terror has come under sharp focus recently, as US President Barack Obama publicly questioned the strategy he pushed last winter of building up US forces in Afghanistan to fight a revitalised Taliban. The top US commander recently warned that NATO could lose the war.

Back to drones: Searching for alternatives to sending still more troops, the White House is now considering a strategy championed by Vice President Joe Biden, which focuses on stepped-up missile attacks by unmanned US drones against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets on the Pakistani side of the border. To be effective, such attacks require Pakistani intelligence. The strikes are unpopular among nationalist and Muslim politicians and activists, but they have become so routine, they barely attract any media attention or public protest in Pakistan these days. Still, an increase in attacks - or strikes outside the semiautonomous areas where they have so far taken place - could turn the public against Pakistan’s government at a time when its popularity is already low. Critics would surely paint President Asif Ali Zardari, who met with Obama in New York on Thursday, as an American lackey.

Withholding intelligence: The Pakistanis are, meanwhile, believed to have withheld intelligence for years about key suspects in the Afghan Taliban, but the US has been making progress in recent months securing their cooperation against certain targets. More than 70 such attacks have killed scores of ranking commanders since last year, including Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

US and NATO officials have long believed that much of the direction, manpower, money and weaponry fuelling the Afghan insurgency comes from Pakistan, in particular from Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is thought to be based close to Quetta, and the network commanded by Siraj Haqqani in Waziristan. Several US officials and many analysts have alleged that Pakistan’s spy agencies are either protecting, tolerating or actively supporting these groups because they do not pose a direct threat to the Pakistani state and might be useful allies in ensuring that a pro-Pakistan, anti-India regime takes power in Afghanistan when the Americans leave.

With talk of NATO pulling out of Afghanistan, an increasingly potent Taliban threat and rising questions in the US about whether defeating the insurgency is possible, there is even less incentive for the Pakistani authorities to share intelligence on Haqqani and Omar, said Shaun Gregory, a professor at Bradford University’s Pakistan Security Research Unit. “The Pakistanis want the Americans out; above all they want India out. And the only creatures who can do that are the Afghan Taliban,” he said. “If the Pakistanis hand over more info on Al Qaeda and the rest, it will have a marginal effect as to what happens in Afghanistan.” Pakistan has not supplied the US with any intelligence on the Haqqani network, Gregory said. In return, Haqqani and other Afghan Taliban have not joined their Pakistani Taliban brethren in trying to seize other regions and advance on Islamabad. “They don’t want to antagonise several groups in Pakistan. If the Haqqani group starts helping the Pakistani Taliban, then God help us,” said defence analyst Talat Masood. “The Americans cannot stay in Afghanistan forever, but we will have to live here forever.” There is little government or military control in the remote, mountainous border region. Al Qaeda’s top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, may be hiding in the area, and militants move freely across the border.

US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson said in a recent interview with McClatchy Newspapers that Pakistan had “different priorities” than America in this regard and was “reluctant to take action” against the leadership of the Afghan insurgency.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official, however, insisted the spy agencies of Pakistan were sharing intelligence with the CIA about militants operating both here and in Afghanistan, including the Haqqani network. “The CIA knows about our role, but we don’t want to highlight it through the media,” said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. Pakistan has claimed several successes in the fight against the Pakistani Taliban in recent months, including a widely praised offensive against insurgents in Swat. But the army and the intelligence agencies are believed to be giving priority to battling groups fighting the Pakistani state rather than those who direct their energies toward US and NATO troops in Afghanistan