The Taliban “spillover” into Pakistan’s Baluchistan

July 22, 2009

According to the New York Times, Pakistan has objected to the influx of U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan, saying this will drive Taliban militants across the border into its troubled Baluchistan province. It quotes a Pakistani intelligence official as saying that a Taliban spillover would force Pakistan to put more troops into Baluchistan, troops the country does not have right now.

The Pakistan Army has already moved into the Swat valley to clear out a Pakistani Taliban group there and is now preparing an offensive against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in his stronghold in South Waziristan. At the same time it is unwilling to move significant numbers of troops away from the Indian border.

What is puzzling about Pakistan’s objection to the U.S. military offensive is not so much its logic, but its timing. All this information was publicly available months ago. A cursory look at a map would show that Pakistani troops were going to be stretched fighting in Swat and Waziristan while also preventing Taliban militants fleeing from Afghanistan into Baluchistan – let alone tackling the Afghan Taliban leadership which the United States says is based in Baluchistan’s capital Quetta. 

The United States and Pakistan discussed their military plans well in advance - the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said in May that both countries were aware of the risk of a Taliban spillover from Afghanistan into Baluchistan and were planning measures to prevent it. The timing of the U.S. offensive was also clearly flagged in advance – to take place before August elections in Afghanistan. And while Pakistan’s planned offensive into South Waziristan is not going as expected, it’s hard to believe that the professional armies in both countries would base their strategy on an assumption of everything going smoothly in the tribal areas. Nor did anyone expect a sudden peace deal with India that would allow Pakistan to move large numbers of troops from east to west.

So what has changed?  Or why object now more than before?

By coincidence, an insurgency in Baluchistan by Baluch separatists – which is quite different from the Pashtun Taliban insurgency – is also gaining fresh attention. A joint statement issued by the prime ministers of India and Pakistan last week included a reference to Pakistani concerns about India helping the Baluch separatists, a charge New Delhi denies. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been heavily criticised at home for agreeing to the reference, Praveen Swami at the Hindu argues that it could put the long-forgotten Baluch separatist insurgency back in focus.

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