Shifting strategies on Afghan border

Posted in Pakistan | 10-Jan-09 | Author: Barbara Plett| Source: BBC

The US army is playing up co-operation with Pakistani counterparts
The US army is playing up co-operation with Pakistani counterparts
The apparent contradiction in Pakistani and American military strategies along the Afghan border is becoming difficult to ignore.

Last week in Islamabad the prime minister told parliament that unilateral US air strikes on militant targets inside Pakistan had become intolerable and the army chief of staff, on a visit to Brussels, urged Nato to stop them.

At the same time a series of US military officers claimed that co-operation between the two armies was improving and, in fact, had been taken to the "next level" of co-ordination and intelligence sharing.

So which statement is right? Probably both.

Fleeing insurgents

The two armies are working together closely on a section of the border that divides the Afghan province of Kunar and the Pakistani tribal area of Bajaur.

Pakistan launched a serious and sustained operation there after its forces were besieged by local Taleban militants supported by foreign fighters from Afghanistan.

The Americans say this is having a significant impact in curbing cross-border militancy, and have moved to block the escape of fleeing insurgents.

"We are doing things today on the ground (in co-ordination with Pakistani forces) that we weren't even talking about five or six months ago," the commander of American troops in Afghanistan, Gen David McKiernen, said recently.

Pakistani commanders express similar sentiments.

"I've seen an improvement where I'm operating," agrees the officer in charge of the Bajaur operation, Maj Gen Tariq Khan.

"We've set up a system in which we're in some kind of regular touch. We've seen practical on-ground adjustments (by the Americans and Afghans) in relevance to our operations."

Yet a series of US air strikes against militant targets in another part of Pakistan's border region - the tribal areas of South and North Waziristan - continues unabated despite strong Pakistani protests that this is stoking rage among tribesmen and undermining public support for its own counter-insurgency efforts.

Here the Americans insist they are eliminating senior militants linked to the Taleban and specially al-Qaeda. The new chief of the US Central Command, Gen David Petraeus, is reported to have claimed that at least three extremist leaders were killed in recent months.

"We are helping you by hitting your bad guys," he told Pakistani officials on a recent visit to Islamabad, according to the local Dawn newspaper.

Conflict of interest

American media says that privately the Pakistani government has actually given tacit approval for the attacks, but continues to denounce them publicly to save face.

This is something officials here have denied.

Whatever the case with the political authorities, other sources say at least for the army there is a real conflict of interest because, in its eyes, the militants being hit by US missiles are not Pakistan's "bad guys".

Security officials here complain that despite their encouragement the US has failed to target the Pakistani Taleban commander who is fighting the Pakistan army and blamed for most of the suicide bombings in the country, Baitullah Mehsud.

Instead, American air strikes overwhelmingly hit the territory of local Taleban leaders who have ceasefires with Pakistan's military, but still send fighters to attack Nato in Afghanistan.

Recently, these commanders - Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur - have blamed the Pakistani government for complicity in the US attacks and threatened retaliation, feeding fears of upsetting the army's precarious policy of divide and rule among the different Taleban factions in the border region.

"We don't have the capacity and capability to deal with all the Taleban groups at once," said a military official. "If you go for all out confrontation, you lose whatever control you have."

The Americans are particularly concerned about the Afghan Taleban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin, who are said to be based in North Waziristan.

Trust deficit

The US blames the Haqqani network for much of the violence in south-eastern Afghanistan, as well as the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last July.

"Haqqanis are for us what Baitullahs are for you," Dawn quoted Gen Petraeus as saying to Pakistani commanders.

US air strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan
US air strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan
Other US officials suspect that Pakistan's army and main intelligence service, the ISI, not only refuses to go after the Afghan Taleban, but actively supports them.

These American suspicions have created a trust deficit between the two nations.

But there are reasons why the Pakistani military does not pursue the Afghan Taleban the way the US would like it to, says an informed observer speaking off the record.

"The ISI does have links with the Afghan Taleban because it wants to use them as a bargaining chip in Afghanistan," he says.

"The Pakistani army wants to have a bigger say in whatever new regional dispensation America is planning. And the view within the army and the ISI is that if the Afghan Taleban is abandoned, this will strengthen the Afghan government, as well as India in Afghanistan, at Pakistan's expense."

Military training

There is no question the army is worried about India's increasing influence in Afghanistan.

Delhi has made major investments, including a motorway that links Afghanistan's road system to the Iranian border and will eventually give access to Iranian ports on the Iranian Gulf, potentially marginalising Pakistan's new sea port of Gwadar.

The US and Pakistan have different priorities for the border area
The US and Pakistan have different priorities for the border area
It has also offered to help train the Afghan military and has reopened consulates near Pakistan's border.

And it has close ties with an Afghan government dominated by the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taleban grouping hostile to Pakistan.

"The more I talk to the establishment, the more I'm convinced that hatred and fear of India has increased," says a Pakistani analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"It's a major driver. And now [the fear is] India together with America."

With the United States supporting India as the dominant regional power, as well as bombing Pakistan's tribal areas, many military officials here are convinced that Washington is colluding with India and Afghanistan to weaken and perhaps dismember the world's only Muslim nuclear power.

This may sound like paranoia, but long time observers of the military maintain that it is prone to conspiracy theories.

However, it does not help that 60 years after its establishment, Pakistan's borders are still in dispute: with India in the east over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir; and with Afghanistan in the west where no Afghan government has ever recognised as legitimate the British-drawn Durand Line that separates it from Pakistan.

Given these festering disputes, the Pakistani army is expected to continue using the cards it has to push for what it sees as its interests in Afghanistan.

And one of these cards, it seems, is the Afghan Taleban - viewed by many in the military establishment as at least a non-hostile force in a country where there is no shortage of other enemies.