Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Peshawar is such an important city for Pakistan that it can be hard to write about it without sounding shrill. It is significant strategically since it lies near the entrance to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. But it is also important emotionally – not only is it a Moghul city and an ancient Silk Route trading hub, but it is also a Pashtun town on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line , the ill-demarcated border between Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed by British colonial rulers that splits the Pashtun people of the region in two. For Pakistan, fighting for control of Peshawar is probably comparable to what France and Germany felt about Alsace Lorraine before World War Two.
So when the New York Times publishes an article about Peshawar being at risk of falling into Taliban hands we must pay attention. “In the last two months, Taliban militants have suddenly tightened the noose on this city of three million people, one of Pakistan’s biggest, establishing bases in surrounding towns and, in daylight, abducting residents for high ransoms,” it says. “The threat to Peshawar is a sign of the Taliban’s deepening penetration of Pakistan and of the expanding danger that the militants present to the entire region, including nearby supply lines for NATO and American forces in Afghanistan.”
The Daily Times says it more dramatically, with a Kiplingesque notion of what the fall of Peshawar to Taliban control would mean for Pakistan: “The Taliban are no longer at the gates of Peshawar, they’re inside, making their presence felt in the largest city in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province),” it says.
Pakistan has just launched an offensive against Taliban fighters near Peshawar in an attempt to re-impose government control. As I said at the beginning, it’s hard not to sound shrill about a place that few outsiders understand. But history is in the making here, and the battle for Peshawar is one we all should watch.
So which troops is Afghan President Hamid Karzai going to send to Pakistan to make good his threat to hunt Baitullah Mehsud and his men, and stop cross-border attacks? The Afghan National Army, the Afghan national police ? Aren’t they already too stretched trying to cope with the Taliban inside Afghanistan to worry about them across the border ?
Indeed Karzai spoke barely a couple of days after 1,150 prisoners, an estimated 400 of them militants, escaped Kandahar jail after it was stormed by the Taliban in what must be one of biggest jailbreaks, even by Afghan standards
Pakistan’s Frontier Corps soldiers and U.S. led coalition-led troops just over the ill-defined border in Afghanistan must have been barely a few hundred yards apart on Tuesday night when 11 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an air strike that has touched off a new row between the two allies.
But their accounts of what really happened in the frontier region of Mohmand are very different and sketchy, and to add to the confusion, there is a third version from the Pakistan Taliban.
It would be hard to think of a more complex web of problems. Pakistan and Afghanistan face, in very different ways, severe domestic political crises which are being exacerbated by soaring prices and food shortages. Both blame each other for failing to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now tensions are rising over attempts by Pakistan, the traditional supplier of food to Afghanistan, to curb its wheat exports to make sure it can feed its own hungry population.
For an idea of how significant this is in Afghanistan, it’s worth reading this piece in the Chicago Tribune. “Western officials – including officers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force – say the food crisis is potentially more destabilizing to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai than the insurgency itself,” it says.
Despite the reservations of its principal ally, the United States, Pakistan’s new civilian leaders have gone ahead and sued for peace with militants in the Swat valley this week, and by all indications are about to cut another deal, and this with the head of the Taliban in the country.
While the politicians have repeatedly emphasised their independence of action with regard to militants and vowed to pursue a different course from President Pervez Musharraf, can they really see these deals through without the Americans on board?
“War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” (Or so said the British philosopher and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell.) So who is going to be left standing once U.S. and NATO forces have finished battling it out with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan?
(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?
A story in the Washington Post “U.S. Steps Up Unilateral Strikes in Pakistan has attracted attention worldwide. It says the United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan’s new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations there.
“Over the past two months, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft are known to have struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives,” it says. “The moves followed a tacit understanding with (President Pervez) Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban.”
For those who missed, it’s worth looking closely at Barack Obama’s latest comments on Pakistan made in a speech this week in which he repeats a call for the United States to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. ”This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide. This is where extremism poses its greatest threat.”
His plan is to rethink U.S. policy towards Pakistan – which has traditionally depended on cooperation with the military rather than civilian governments — to bolster the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people, condition aid to Pakistan on its action against al Qaeda, and show Pakistan that America is on its side.
Thanks to openDemocracy for highlighting this piece on EurasiaNet about a row between the Taliban and al Qaeda which it says has surfaced among bloggers on a website in Egypt.
“Islamic extremists who regularly post messages to a pro-Al-Qaeda website in Egypt are accusing Afghanistan’s Taliban of straying from the path of global jihad,” it says. “Internet criticisms of the Taliban follow a February statement from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar announcing that his movement wants to maintain positive and ‘legitimate’ relations with countries neighbouring Afghanistan.”