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.
The U.S. State Department has just released its 2007 report on terrorism worldwide and it doesn’t look like it is winning the war against al Qaeda seven years after the Sept 11 attacks. The group not only remains the biggest threat to the United States and its allies, but using the tribal areas of Pakistan it has rebuilt some of its pre-Sept 11 capabilities. And its top leadership, especially Ayman al-Zawahri, has regained some of its control over the group’s operations worldwide, says the report.
It makes for sobering reading and some of the figures are worth recounting.
- The number of what the report identified as terrorist attacks worldwide fell slightly in 2007, but the number of people killed in the attacks rose to 22,685, from 20,872 in the previous year which suggests that people around the globe were getting increasingly efficient killing other people, as Russ Travers of the National Counterterrorism Center put it.
One factor contributing to the increased lethality of attacks: increased use of backpacks by suicide bombers that are easier to sneak into crowded areas.
Notwithstanding his weakened position at home, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf this week flies to China , the “all weather friend” that has stood by the country through all its troubles.
Unlike its American friends, the Chinese have not blown hot and cold, although there have been challenges such as attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan, including the execution of three workers near Peshawar last year and concern that the Islamist fervour sweeping the northwest parts of Pakistan was spilling over to neighbouring Xinjiang, China’s troubled, predominantly Muslim region.
But the Chinese do not give Pakistan lectures on democracy, the dangers of nuclear proliferation – which arguably isn’t surprising since some of it is traced back to the Chinese, according to non-proliferation experts- or threaten to bomb them into the Stone Age , which is what Islamabad says the Bush administration did to enlist its support in its war on terrorism days after Sept 11.
China, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told parliament in his opening address last week, was a time-tested ally and the friendship “was deeper than the Indian Ocean and higher than the Himalayas”. On Monday, a Shanghai shipyard launched the first of four frigates to be delivered to the Pakistan navy, while the Pakistani air force has already inducted a fighter aircraft co-produced with China. Beijing has also helped Pakistan build civil nuclear plants.
Pakistan’s alliance with China is far more enduring that the one with the United States, a scholar writing for the YaleGlobal Online argued last month, characterising the relationship with Washington dating back to 1954 as an intermittent, Cold War marriage of convenience. The current U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been built on security interests and is already looking fragile following the outcome of the February elections when the party supported by ally Musharraf was routed.
Pakistan’s alliance with China, in contrast, is based on permanent strategic interests and immutable issues of geography, including China’s desire for access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, scholar Willem van Kemenade says in the article. And unlike the sometimes public polemics with Washington over the war on militancy, Pakistan and China are quietly cooperating to ensure things don’t go out of hand in China’s far west.
Indeed, Musharraf will be winding up his visit in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where he is expected to appeal to local Muslims to cooperate with the authorities and not to be misled by followers of Tibet’s spiritual leader Dala Lama trying to stoke fires there, as B.Raman, a former additional secretary at India’s Research and Analysis Wing, the external intelligence arm, says in a paper for the India-based South Asia Analysis Group.
So has China been a better friend than the United States and is the relationship as solid as ever?