Weeks after US missiles killed eleven Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, the air is still thick with recrimination. The United States insists its men were ambushed by the Taliban inside Afghanistan and fired back in “self-defense.” Pakistan says that even though the army’s border positions were known, the Americans fired in a “cowardly and unprovoked…act of aggression.”
The acrimony deepened with comments by Gen. Dan McNeil, retiring commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. On June 15 he questioned the loyalty of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that guards the border. The dead FC soldiers “were pretty much tribals themselves,” he said, referring to the fact that they came from the same Pashtun kith as the Taliban. Does that mean they were legitimate targets? They may become so. The border skirmish was bound to happen. It was a result of two colliding views over how to tackle the Taliban and its Al Qaeda cohort ensconced in Pakistan’s lethal borderlands.
There is no dispute about the task’s urgency. Many in Pakistan accept that the Taliban represents a grave threat to the state’s sovereignty. And George W. Bush has marked the Pakistan-Afghan border as the most dangerous place on earth, where “Al Qaeda has established safe havens and is plotting attacks against the United States.” The dispute is about means. Bush believes the Taliban and Al Qaeda must be destroyed by war, akin to the counterinsurgency now raking through southern Afghanistan. The new Pakistani government says war has failed and peace must be tried, at least with the Taliban.
Until parliamentary elections in February, the military regime under Gen. Pervez Musharraf pursued a US-minted policy in the tribal areas, where might was applied in exchange for American largesse (at least $10 billion since 9/11, overwhelmingly paid to the army). The policy was a disaster. Not only did it alienate the tribes that straddle the border and unleash violence throughout Pakistan on an Afghan scale; it transformed the so-called Pakistan Taliban from a sidekick of their Afghan big brother to a movement that today rules large chunks of the tribal areas as well as swaths of the “settled” North-West Frontier Province.
By the time Pakistan’s new civilian government took office two facts were clear. The Taliban could not defeat the Pakistani army, which was then slowly recovering lost territories. But there could be no military victory against the militants. Peace will buy time and space, says the government. It will allow jobs to be created and schools to be built to wean tribesmen from an emerging Taliban polity that already has certain feature of a nascent state. Politically the aim is to domesticate the Taliban as a Pashtun movement rather than one allied with Al Qaeda’s global jihad. “We have to talk to the Taliban,” says Asif Ahmed Ali, a former foreign minister and now MP in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. “There’ll be no peace in Pakistan or Afghanistan without it. The Taliban is the only force that can expel Al Qaeda.”
Such views require a seismic shift by Washington. It won’t happen soon. In fact, Bush Administration policy calls for more of the same. The very moment Musharraf’s parties were being trashed in elections, US commanders were negotiating with the ex-dictator about flight rights in the tribal areas to kill Al Qaeda fugitives. The aim was to “shake down” Al Qaeda’s command to get a better fix on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, preferably before Bush’s exit in January.
American envoys asked the new government whether it would be bound by Musharraf’s promise. No, it said. Since elections had endorsed peace with the Taliban, the government asked Washington to respect it. Instead, on May 14 US guided missiles killed fifteen in the Bajaur tribal area, including a child and perhaps an Al Qaeda commander. The Pakistani army said the attacks were “completely counterproductive” to both the government’s and NATO’s policies.
Around this time NATO officials began leaking reports about a 50 percent hike in Taliban penetration into Afghanistan. And US commanders like General McNeil wondered aloud if there was a direct correlation between peace in Pakistan and war in Afghanistan.
Few Pakistani army officers believe the killing of the Frontier Corps soldiers was a fluke. Rather, it’s seen as signaling a shift in Washington away from a policy of renting the Pakistani army to “do more” against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas to one where the United States goes in alone.
The new line appears to have support among some Democrats: “I’ve repeatedly challenged George Bush and John McCain’s refusal to hold the Pakistan government accountable for its inability to crack down on Al Qaeda and Taliban operating within its borders. We are not going to get Afghanistan right until we get our Pakistan policy right,” said Barack Obama on June 18. Getting Pakistan right, he explained last year, means sending US forces into the tribal areas to hunt down bin Laden.
Three things would happen if the United States did that, say analysts. It would convert the Pashtun tribes’ passive support for the Taliban into a nationalist uprising in its defense. It would split the Pakistani army into pro- and anti-American factions, undermining the one national institution able to contain the Taliban. And it would destroy the post-9/11 US-Pakistan alliance, which, for all its flaws, has scored some success against the Al Qaeda leadership, including the capture of those who allegedly planned the attacks on America. For all these reasons, there could be no greater victory for the Taliban or Al Qaeda than an American military incursion into Pakistan.