Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Leading Pakistani newspapers have retracted stories that appear to have partly depended on fake WikiLeaks cables to support long-standing Pakistani allegations against India, particularly in causing instability inside Pakistan. The stories also quoted U.S. diplomats as ridculing India and its army.
The News ran a story saying its report was inaccurate and had been picked up from a local news agency. The report had originated, it said, in websites “known for their close connections with certain intelligence agencies”.
The Express Tribune said that it “deeply regrets publishing this story without due verification and apologises profusely for any inconvenience caused to our valued readers.”
Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which had advance access to the cables, said that, “an extensive search of the WikiLeaks database by the Guardian by date, name and keyword failed to locate any of the incendiary allegations. It suggests this is the first case of WikiLeaks being exploited for propaganda purposes.”
Reading through some of the WikiLeaks cables, I have been struck by how easy it might be to take the fragmentary and often outdated information contained in them and make a case to support either side of the India-Pakistan divide. Now it turns out someone did, but without even the support of the underlying cables, according to this version of Pakistani media reports by the Pakistan blog Cafe Pyala of alleged Indian skulduggery, including in Baluchistan.
As Cafe Pyala notes, Pakistan’s The News and various other papers cited the alleged cables as proof of alleged Indian involvement in creating trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan. These allegations were included amongst others that anyone who follows the subject closely hears being bandied about between India and Pakistan. (Reporting on those allegations is much harder, for reasons I will discuss below.)
Last week’s suicide bombing of a mosque in Zahedan, capital of the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan, is another reminder of how far two of the United States’ main foreign policy challenges – its row with Iran over its nuclear programme, and its policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – are intertwined.
A senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said on Saturday that the United States would face “fall out” from the bomb attack which it blamed on the Jundollah Sunni Muslim rebel group - a militant group which Iran says is backed by Washington and operates from Baluchistan province in neighbouring Pakistan. Massoud Jazayeri, deputy head of the dominant ideological wing of Iran’s armed forces, did not specify what he meant by fall-out from the bombing, which killed 28 people and which the United States has condemned.
Baluchistan, Pakistan’s biggest province, rarely gets much attention from the international media, and what little it does is dwarfed by that showered on Afghanistan. So it is with a certain amount of deliberate provocation that I ask the question posed in the headline: Is Baluchistan more strategically significant than Afghanistan?
Before everyone answers with a resounding “no”, do pause to consider that China – renowned for its long-term planning – has invested heavily in Baluchistan, including building a deep water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to give it access to Gulf oil supplies. The region is rich in gas and minerals; attracting strong international interest in spite of a low-level insurgency by Baluch separatists.
Pakistan’s military offensive in South Waziristan appears to be showing considerably more success than earlier attempts to take control of the tribal region on the Afghan border, at least according to army accounts which are the only real source of information.
But will it turn the tide in Pakistan’s battle against Islamist militants? A few articles which have appeared over the last few days give pause for thought.
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.
Pakistan is already under intense pressure from the United States and India to crack down on militant groups inside its borders. Now Iran has added its own pressure after 25 people were killed last week in the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Zahedan, in the southeast of the country towards the Pakistan border.
According to the Tehran Times, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran to protest about the bombing, which it blamed on militants on Pakistan’s side of the border.
The Pakistan Army is engaged in what appears to be a very nasty little war in the Swat valley against heavily armed Taliban militants. With journalists having left Swat, there have been no independent reports of what is going on there, though the scale of the operation can be partly measured by the huge numbers of refugees – nearly 1.7 million – who fled to escape the military offensive.
Dawn newspaper carried an interview with a wounded soldier saying the Taliban had buried mines and planted IEDs every 50 metres. ‘They positioned snipers in holes made out of the walls of houses. They used civilians as human shields. They used to attack from houses and roofs,” it quoted him as saying. ‘They are well equipped, they have mortars. They have rockets, sniper rifles and every type of sophisticated weapons.”
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.”
Concern is mounting over the health of John Solecki, an American working for the UNHCR, who was kidnapped from the Pakistani city of Quetta 45 days ago.
The UN said it was worried about an apparent deterioration in his health after a little known Baluch group, which says it is holding him, called a local news agency saying he was seriously ill with a heart condition.