How will Obama tackle militants in Pakistan?

March 29, 2009

Read President Barack Obama’s speech on his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and compare it to what he said a year ago and it’s hard to see how much further forward we are in understanding exactly how he intends to uproot Islamist militants inside Pakistan.

Last year, Obama said that ”If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot.” Last week, he said that, ”Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.  And we will insist that action be taken — one way or another — when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.”

The United States has already stepped up attacks by drone missiles on suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas since Obama took office, despite official protests by Pakistan, which says they are counterproductive since they cause civilian casualties and encourage people to support the insurgents.

The Pakistani protests began to look rather hollow after media reports that the drones were taking off from a base inside Pakistan. But that may have missed the point. The question of where the drones are based is perhaps less important than the distrust between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries on sharing intelligence about militant targets.

General Ashfaq Kayani, now head of the Pakistan Army, tells a rather revealing story about this. He is quoted in Brian Cloughley’s book “War, Coups and Terror” as describing the case of a tribesman with a performing monkey who gathered an audience of turban-clad, rifle-bearing men around him in a village in 2005. The U.S. controllers of the drone mistook the event for a weapons-training session or military briefing and dropped a missile, killing many in the audience (he doesn’t say what happened to the monkey). “This, said the General, was an example of lack of cultural understanding,” writes Cloughley.

“The monkey incident, and other attacks by the U.S. within Pakistan,” adds Cloughley, “have convinced the population of North West Frontier Province and a disturbing number of other citizens, including many in uniform, that there is nothing to be gained by supporting the United States, which they consider to be overbearing and imperceptive in its engagement with the country.”

So has intelligence-sharing moved on since then?  If the United States wanted to be sure of hitting the right targets, it could ask the Pakistani military to help it guide the drones and then assess, on looking through the remote camera, whether they were on course.  Or as Foreign Minister Mahmood  Qureshi said last month, it could give Pakistan drones to carry out the task itself.

But intelligence-sharing is not easy at the best of times between different national armies. It’s particularly tough when you don’t trust your allies. Senior U.S. military officers say they believe elements in Pakistan’s Inter-Services intelligence, or ISI, provide support to Taliban or al Qaeda militants. Has Obama worked out how to square that circle? As yet, we don’t know.

The other big question is over where the United States intends to target the Islamists. U.S. officials have begun saying publicly that the Afghan Taliban are based in Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan — quite different from the tribal areas where both the Pakistan Army and the U.S. drone missiles have been concentrated until now.  “Quetta appears to be the headquarters for the leaders of the Taliban and some of the worst people in the world,” special envoy Richard Holbrooke said in an interview with the BBC.

Does that mean the United States is preparing to expand its drone missile attacks into Baluchistan as the New York Times suggested? We don’t know for sure, although some analysts have suggested the NYT report might have been deliberately leaked to put pressure Pakistan to do more to tackle the Taliban in Baluchistan.

NPR last week quoted Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies as saying that, ”the main traditional center of Taliban activity is … in the Baluchi area. It is, at this point in time, by far the most effective threat to NATO and U.S. and Afghan forces.”

But ordering drone strikes in Baluchistan, writes former Pakistan ambassador Akbar Ahmed in the Huffington Post, is “not a good idea. The colonial British assiduously prevented the Baluch tribe of Baluchistan and Pashtun tribes of Southern Afghanistan and Pakistani agencies like North and South Waziristan from ever teaming up against them. I can predict that with the first drone strike in Baluchistan, America will ensure that this occurrs. As a result, the Taliban will gain new supporters and vast strategic depth.”

Pakistan already faces a separate insurgency in Baluchistan by Baluchis angered by what they see as the domination of the country by Punjabis who have failed to give them a fair share of the revenues from the resource-rich province. It is quite separate from the Taliban, although -complicating the picture further – Pakistani officials complain that the Baluchistan insurgency is supported by India — a charge India denies.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari – who prides himself on his ability to unite Pakistan’s disparate regions - his family originally came from Baluchistan while the Pakistan People’s Party of his late wife Benazir Bhutto has its roots in Sindh province - has promised to try to address the grievances of the people of Baluchistan.  That’s hardly in line with a stepped-up military campaign, whether by the Pakistan Army or by U.S. drone missile attacks.

So what does Obama plan to do about the Afghan Taliban, who according to his own officials operate openly in Quetta?

Pakistan has traditionally resisted going after the Afghan Taliban, arguing that they are primarily interested in regaining power in Afghanistan and do not present a global threat in the same way as does al Qaeda — an assessment always hard to judge given the close links between the two. According to this argument, if the Taliban could be persuaded to sever ties with al Qaeda, they could be included in any eventual political settlement in Afghanistan.

Obama appeared to rule this out on Friday when he talked of ”an uncompromising core of the Taliban” which would allow al Qaeda back into Afghanistan.  “They must be met with force, and they must be defeated.”  How exactly will they be met with force? We don’t know.

There is still much to learn about Obama’s plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the U.S. administration itself will probably refine it as it goes along. But watching what happens in Baluchistan is as good a place to start as any. My guess is that for all the talk of bringing in Iran into a regional solution for Afghanistan, developments in Baluchistan could turn out to be more significant.

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