Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
On the Afghanistan-Pakistan border : cutting off the nose to spite the face
Pakistan’s defence minister has threatened to move forces away from the Afghan border, where they are deployed to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban, if the United States cuts off aid to the cash-strapped country. Ahmed Mukhtar’s logic is that Pakistan is essentially fighting America’s war on the Afghan border, and if it is going to put the squeeze on its frontline partner, then it will respond by not doing America’s bidding.
But apart from the issue of whether Pakistan can really stand up to the United States is the question of whether Islamabad can afford to pull back from the Afghan border for its own sake. This is no longer the porous border where movement of insurgents is confined to members of the Afghan Taliban travelling across to launch attacks on foreign forces in their country. Over the past few weeks, the traffic has moved in the reverse direction, with militants crossing over from Afghanistan to attack Pakistani security posts, Pakistani officials say. These are not armed men sneaking across in twos and threes , but large groups of up to 600 men armed with rocket launchers and grenades flagrantly crossing the mountainous border to attack security forces and civilians in Pakistan. (It also stands Pakistan’s strategy of seeking strategic depth versus India on its head; now the rear itself has become a threat.)
It is not very clear who these raiders are – which adds to the anxiety - but one obvious guess is that they could be members of the Pakistan Taliban who have come under pressure in their mountain redoubts in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) from the military and may have found sanctuary just over the border in eastern Afghanistan. The umbrella organisation is sworn to fighting the Pakistani state and is mainly behind the wave of suicide bombings in the country over the past three years, stepping up the momentum even more after Osama bin Laden’s killing, with an audacious attack on a naval base in the southern city of Karachi.
Indeed, the Pakistani military’s offensives have been focused on crushing the Tehrik-e-Taliban, and it is inconceivable that they would thin out on the Afghan border which is where the threat is coming from, at the moment.
There is another, equally worrying challenge. What if the U.S.-led NATO forces were to cross the border in “hot pursuit” of insurgents? It’s not entirely impossible : in May NATO helicopters , pursuing insurgents, were reported to have crossed into North Waziristan which followed another raid back in October in which two Pakistani soldiers were accidentally shot. Two years earlier, in September 2008, American commandos carried out a raid in Pakistan’s tribal areas and killed several people suspected of being insurgents. The attack led to outrage among Pakistan’s leaders — and warnings not to do it again.
With ties testing new lows each week, and America’s impatience with the militants growing, the chances of greater aggression on the border have only increased. For Pakistan to pull out from the troubled frontier at this point seems like a self-defeating goal, more than anything else.