America will not win the war in Afghanistan by taking it across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas
ALLIED gloom about the war in Afghanistan tends to be seasonal. The hopes of spring are dented by a summer of roadside explosions, suicide-bombings and ambushes. But this autumn they have nearly been dashed altogether. Violence is at its highest level since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001. The chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has admitted he is “not convinced we’re winning it” in Afghanistan. On the ground the mood is bleaker. Foreign aid-workers in Kabul feel under siege. Generals grumble about needing thousands more soldiers. Some diplomats seem close to despair. For those hoping Afghanistan can soon achieve peace and stability, these are desperate times.
One desperate measure adopted by America in response has been to attack the presumed bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas from which militants mount cross-border operations (see article). Since Pakistan is failing to live up to its promise to deny the insurgents sanctuary, exasperated American generals have decided to act themselves. But launching attacks in Pakistan in defiance of its government is counterproductive.
On September 3rd American commandos mounted an attack in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistanis say another incursion this week was repulsed, though both armies deny it. Certainly, American forces have been stepping up strikes. There have been a dozen in a fortnight.
Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is easily provoked, and it is hard to imagine greater provocation. The government, which says the American attacks have cost civilian lives, has been fiercely critical of them. Worse, there are suspicions in Pakistan that their timing was influenced by the political calendar in Washington. The Bush administration, it is thought, is impatient for an “October surprise” in the form of the killing or capture of al-Qaeda bigwigs hiding in the FATA.
Even if these suspicions are groundless, unilateral cross-border attacks, which appear to have killed no “high-value targets”, are a bad idea. In Afghanistan itself the Taliban have been adept at duping foreign forces into becoming their recruiters through the killing of civilians. In the FATA there is the same risk: that the raids end up making the local population—and the rest of Pakistan—even more hostile to America. They certainly undermine the fragile new civilian government of President Asif Zardari. To be treated with such contempt by an ally weakens Mr Zardari’s standing at home, and makes Pakistan’s army—never tolerant of civilian direction—even less likely to heed the government.
Federally administer the tribal areas
Yet it is true that Afghanistan will never know peace while the tribal areas provide a haven for insurgents. Force will be part of the solution. But, as Mr Zardari knows, there also needs to be a comprehensive plan to develop the region—building roads and providing buses, schools and hospitals, but also dismantling the terrorist infrastructure and, eventually, integrating the FATA fully into Pakistan proper. America’s cross-border pressure may have been intended in part to impress upon Pakistan’s leaders the urgency of the military aspect.
If so, it has probably worked, and the Americans may now ease off. Indeed, Admiral Mullen, visiting Islamabad on September 17th, promised to respect Pakistani sovereignty. But Pakistan’s foreign minister complained that an American drone attack in North Waziristan that day had again been undertaken without consultation. Pakistanis will still need persuading that the fight against extremists is their war, as well as America’s. Admiral Mullen’s soothing words were but a start.