Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
(Luke Baker is with the U.S. army in eastern Afghanistan)
The snows have largely melted in the Hindu Kush and the high trails over the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan are once again passable. What’s more, Tehrik-e-Taliban’s leader, Baitullah Mehsud, looks like he may secure a peace deal with Pakistan’s new leadership, including the possibility of Pakistan’s security forces backing off from attacking his hideouts in South Waziristan.
To many observers, those two developments lead to a conclusion: any spring offensive by the Taliban against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan could be that much more powerful this year, with Mehsud throwing his tactical weight behind the offensive without fear of being squeezed by Pakistan’s forces from behind.
The argument has a fair amount of logic on its side, but how likely is the whole scenario really?
On the Afghanistan side of the border, U.S. commanders seem unconvinced, even if they are not dismissing the possibility of some sort of offensive in the coming months. First, they say many of the traditional infiltration routes over the mountains have now been closed off or are under watch by special forces. Even if much of the border is likely to remain passable — there’s no way 16,000 or so U.S. troops could seal every mountainous nook and cranny along hundreds of miles of frontier — they are not expecting the overall rate of infiltration to change substantially from last year.
Secondly, rather than relations between U.S. forces and Pakistani troops breaking down in the wake of President Pervez Musharraf’s sidelining and the murmurs of a peace deal with Mehsud, they say cooperation remains strong. Senior U.S. officers meet once a month, face-to-face for what they call “border flag” meetings with senior Pakistani officers, sharing intelligence and building relationships. Junior officers have even more contact — they have exchanged mobile phone numbers with the other side and sometimes communicate by radio on a daily basis.
While living in Delhi after 9/11, and in particular after India and Pakistan nearly went to war over an attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, one of the questions that cropped up frequently was about how much the Pakistan army had been permeated by hardline Islamists. In other words, how much sympathy did the army feel for al Qaeda and Taliban militants that then General Pervez Musharraf had pledged to fight?
Several years later, while researching a book on the Siachen war, I had occasion to travel with the Pakistan army and assess the Islamist question up close. My impression was that the Pakistan army was not driven by religious fanaticism. Yes, it exhorted its soldiers to embrace “shaheed”, or martyrdom, in the name of Allah. But it was otherwise remarkably similar to the Indian army. Both relied on a blend of nationalism and loyalty to their fellow men in the same unit; both found recruits in the mountains and rural villages who could be inculcated with a spirit of “ours not to reason why”; both counted on officers to lead from the front. Men did not go into battle dreaming of death. An officer who thinks only of killing himself is of little use to a professional army, which needs men who are above all sane, who can remain focused and objective, who know the difference between suicide and getting killed.