Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Stirring the hornet’s nest in Pakistan’s northwest
The United States has a set of expectations that it wants Pakistan’s government to meet, Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton said ahead of her short trip to Islamabad last week, the kind of language Washington has frequently employed to bring its conflicted partner in the war against militant Islam to heel, each time there has been a crisis. Clinton didn’t elaborate, saying only at the end of her meetings in Islamabad that she expected Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead.
But on Monday, Pakistan’s The News reported that the military was preparing to launch an air and ground offensive against militants in North Waziristan, a demand that the United States has repeatedly made over the last two years. It said the decision was taken during discussions that Clinton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State Admiral Mike Mullen had with Pakistani government and military leaders.
North Waziristan is a redoubt of the Haqqani network, the most powerful of the insurgent groups in eastern Afghanistan and in and around Kabul where it has carried out a wave of bombings against civilians as well as foreign forces. Pakistan has held off going into the forbidding mountains saying it needed to consolidate its operations in southern Waziristan following the offensive there in 2009.
But in the wake of the international opprobrium Pakistan’s military has come under following the killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan, its space for manouevre has become less. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month U.S. officials as saying they hoped to use Islamabad’s embarrassment over failing to find bin Laden—he was killed in a house a short distance from the country’s elite military academy—to press for tougher Pakistani action against the Haqqanis and other militant groups that are focused on attacking U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
It puts the Pakistani military in a spot , as has happened so often since it reluctantly joined the U.S.-led war on al Qaeda and the Taliban following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. The Haqqanis are long seen as a prized asset of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani spy agency, beginning from the 1980s when it along with the CIA – ironically- funded them to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the family patriarch, acquired legendary status among supporters for his exploits against the Red Army. Like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Punjabi group focused on fighting Indian forces in Kashmir and elsewhere in India, the Haqqanis have never carried out an attack on Pakistani soil.
An offensive against them in their Waziristan base carries the risk of a backlash that the Pakistani military is already facing from other militant groups it once nurtured like the members of the Pakistani Taliban. They turned against the state following the army’s operation to clean up the Red Mosque in Islamabad, and today, the Pakistan Taliban are at the forefront of the campaign against the military, claiming responsibility for some of the biggest attacks including the daring raid on the Karachi naval base attack last week to avenge bin Laden’s death.
Indeed, the military either by its incompetence or having been outmanoeuvred by its U.S. partner, faces a double backlash. While the rest of the world suspects it to have had a role in hiding bin laden all these years and so the U.S. kept it out of the May 2 raid to kill him in his lair, the militants operating inside Pakistan believe the military had a role in his killing. They have turned their wrath on the state, and more than any other country,Pakistan has become the main battleground for attacks to avenge the al Qaeda leader’s death.
Further out, by pushing the Pakistan military to sever links with the Haqqanis, the United States is hitting at one of the central planks of the Pakistani strategy to retain influence in Afghanistan as the end game builds up. Pakistan saw the Haqqanis as part of a future power structure in Afghanistan with their influence in the east, and as recent as this month, an ISI official told the Wall Street Journal the group could one day be a ”force for peace” in Afghanistan.
Launching an attack against them is almost certainly going to deprive the ISI of one of its biggest strategic assets. One escape door, as has happened so often in this troubleed relationship with the CIA, is that the core Haqqani network may not be in North Waziristan anymore, which has been targeted heavily by U.S. drones over the past two years. In any case repeated talk of an impending operation may have led the network to move its forces to other parts of the Pakistani northwest.
So, as journalist and top expert on the insurgency in the Pakistani northwest, Rahimullah Yusufzai, wrote in Newsline last week, the Pakistan militarymay well go into North Waziristan but their immediate target will be the Pakistani Taliban which have found sanctuary there following the operations in the south. As for the Haqqanis, the military will likely argue that they are not based in North Waziristan and that its fighters and head, Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin, are all fighting across the border in Afghanistan
But America is “obsessed” with the Haqqanis, and it won’t be satisfied, Yusufzai says.
There is not much likelihood that the US and Pakistan will be able to narrow down their differences regarding the endgame of the Afghan conflict. One should, therefore, expect more of the same with the CIA and the ISI playing games to outwit each other. And the raid on Osama’s compound in Abbottabad has made it clear that the US is not afraid to play bigger games on Pakistani soil, no matter the embarrassment to their coalition partner at home or abroad.