Pakistan's shift alarms the US
KARACHI - Ongoing tension between India and Pakistan in the wake of the terror attack on the Indian city of Mumbai last November in which 179 people died at the hands of gunmen linked to Pakistan has clouded Islamabad's role in the United States-led "war on terror".
Mindful of this, US Central Command commander General David Petraeus paid a one-day visit to Pakistan on Tuesday. In meetings with senior officials, including army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, Petraeus said that the US and the international community would continue to support Pakistan, but it needed "to put its house in order" on the issue of militants.
The US is already looking ahead to this year's round of fighting in Afghanistan against the Taliban-led insurgency once winter passes. Petraeus has committed to a surge in US troop numbers to about 60,000, but Pakistan's cooperation in dealing with militants based in its tribal areas is essential. The militants use these bases to support their operations in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Petraeus announced a partial solution to another problem that has dogged the war efforts in Afghanistan. He said a new supply route to Afghanistan had been agreed on with Central Asian states and Russia as an option to the one that passes though Khyber Agency, the Pakistani tribal area bordering Afghanistan through which nearly 80% of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) supplies pass on the way to landlocked Afghanistan.
"There have been agreements reached and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia," Petraeus said. This means NATO supplies will have to travel by the most expensive route to reach Afghanistan, which will push up the costs of an already very expensive war.
NATO supplies through the agency have increasingly been under attack since early 2008 and the agency, once a peaceful area, is a new war theater between the Pakistani security forces and the Taliban.
NATO has repeatedly urged Pakistan to do something about protecting the route, but it has been helpless because of a serious lack of human resources as many of its forces are engaged in combating the Taliban in Bajaur Agency and in the Swat Valley.
And significantly, following the Mumbai attack, Islamabad has moved troops from the border with Afghanistan to the border with India, where Indian troops are also mobilized. On Tuesday, India tested a cruise missile close to the Pakistan border. An Indian Defense Ministry spokesman said a Brahmos supersonic cruise missile had been successfully fired. The missiles have a range of up to several hundred kilometers.
It is Pakistan's focus on India that has Washington concerned, yet the heightened tensions between Islamabad and Delhi suit both countries. India has to hold general elections before May, and the ruling Congress-led government needs to be seen as doing something about the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan, meanwhile, has an excuse to bail out its highly demoralized troops on the western borders with Afghanistan by moving them to the Indian border.
Relations between the countries are likely to remain frosty for some time. Pakistan has now agreed to the trial of leaders of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror group linked to the Mumbai attack. Delhi has handed over files of evidence which range from Pakistani-manufactured shaving cream used by the gunmen to the Pakistani-manufactured boat engine the men used to get to Mumbai.
In another development, shortly before Petraeus met with Pakistani officials, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of his own faction of the Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Islam political party, met with President Asif Ali Zardari and received a military backed green light to negotiate truces with Pakistani militants.
Rahman did this job successfully in 2005, which resulted in a ceasefire between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani security forces in April 2006. Consequently, the Taliban made a successful comeback in Afghanistan in the spring of 2006 - their first powerful offensive since their regime was driven out of Kabul in 2001.
This will be of grave concern to Petraeus ahead of the next real battle against the Taliban that starts in April. The foremost concern is over the most effective deployment of the additional troops in Afghanistan. Permanent ground deployment comes with problems, as the Pakistani military has learned in Bajaur Agency, where its troops become sitting ducks at the hands of guerrillas operating from safe mountain sanctuaries. Yet if the troops are not deployed on the ground, the whole exercise of bringing in more of them and making additional arrangements for their supplies will be a waste of time and money.
The last thing Petraeus needs now is for Pakistan to continue with its focus on India while effectively handing over its western borders to the Taliban, yet this process is already underway.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org