Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Pakistan has been facing gun and bomb attacks for so long, it is tempting to think it will continue to muddle along, the situation never becoming so bad as to galvanise it into action. And maybe it will.
But a series of attacks in and around Peshawar this month should give serious pause for thought.
First came a raid on Peshawar airport in mid-December, for which the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. Then political leader Bashir Ahmed Bilour – an outspoken critic of the Taliban and a senior minister in the provincial government of the Awami National Party (ANP) – was killed in a suicide bombing.
While the city was still in shock over Bilour’s death, its defences were attacked. Taliban militants assaulted three security posts meant to separate the so-called settled areas from the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing two men from the security forces and taking 22 others prisoner. At least 20 of them were later killed by the Taliban,Pakistani media reported.
Beneath the din of shouted exchange rates, trilling mobiles and the clink-clink of tea glasses ricocheting around Kandahar’s money market, there is a barely-audible backbeat: the electric purr of counting machines gobbling dollars, Afghanis and rupees.
In dozens of cramped shops crowding the galleries of the echoey exchange, a clannish brotherhood of currency dealers oils the wheels of Afghanistan’s cash-based economy, sending funds across borders, swapping foreign bills or taking deposits in the manner of conventional banks.
The United States carried out more drone strikes in Afghanistan this year than it has done in all the years put together in Pakistan since it launched the covert air war there eight years ago. With all the attention and hand wringing focused on the operations in Pakistan, it’s remarkable that such a ramp-up just over the border has gone virtually unnoticed.
The two battlegrounds are not the same, of course. Afghanistan is an open and hot battlefield where U.S. forces are deployed and the drones are part of the air support available to troops. Pakistan is a sovereign nation and the United States is not in a state of war with it and so you wouldn’t expect the same pace of operations, even though U.S. commanders say the Taliban insurgency draws its sustenance from the sanctuaries in the Pakistani northwest.
It’s been another brutal year of fighting in Afghanistan. While a spike in green-on-blue attacks has justifiably grabbed attention because of the cracks it has exposed within the military coalition, Afghans themselves are paying an increasingly higher price as they get pitchforked into the centre of the battle.
More than 300 Afghan soldiers and policemen are dying each month, Afghanistan’s defence ministry spokesman said earlier this month. He said the deaths had risen largely because local forces had taken over security responsibilities covering 75 percent of the population and were therefore taking higher casualties. Still, losing 10 members of the security forces each day is a worrying statistic. At this rate, Afghan national forces are going to lose nearly twice as many men in a year than the United States has lost since it invaded the country in 2001.
In Pakistan, no one calls troublesome journalists and warns they may be killed. There’s no reason to point out the obvious. So when investigative journalist Umar Cheema started getting late-night anonymous phone calls, gently suggesting he stop investigating a particular story, he knew what was at stake. Since then, he has been kidnapped and tortured. He has survived a hit-and-run that laid him out for six months.
This week, 35-year-old Cheema published his most ambitious investigation yet. The leaked tax details (pdf) of 446 Pakistani legislators and ministers showed that nearly 70 percent did not even file a tax return, highlighting the lax regulatory environment and tax loopholes that allow many Pakistani millionaire lawmakers to pay no income tax at all.
The late Richard Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, once recalled that by the summer of 2010 the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan had worked out how the United States might settle the Afghan war. “He said, ‘I think I’ve got it. I think I can see how all the pieces can fit together,’’” the National Journal quoted her as saying. “It looked like he was working a Rubik’s cube in his head.”
We will never know whether Holbrooke, who died in December 2010, would have been able to deliver on that vision. But we do know that U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan has drifted over the last few years to the point where domestic U.S. pressure is growing for a rapid exit. Or as former U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter said in an interview last month, it was one in which you might “win a few battles and lose the war”.