Moving Afghan war to Pakistan

The turbulent prospect of direct United States intervention against al-Qaedaand Taliban jihadi bases in Pakistani territory adjoining Afghanistan appears to have moved closer after last week’s visit to Washington by Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani.

Far from reassuring his hosts that Islamabad is on top of the situation in the so-called tribal areas, Gilani’s uncertain performance seems to have convinced US officials of the need to move quickly. A sub-text to this fast-moving drama is George Bush’s desire to catch or kill his 9/11 nemesis, Osama bin Laden, before he leaves office in January.

Bin Laden and senior al-Qaedaleaders are believed to be in the lawless, former princely state of Swat, in North-West Frontier province, or in areas such as Waziristan in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas. Their support for Taliban efforts to drive Nato forces out of Afghanistan has brought escalating military and civilian casualties – and pressure from US commanders to strike back across the border.

Primary US concern, plainly expressed to Gilani at the White House, focuses on the pressing need to stop the aiding and abetting of the Afghan Taliban by Pakistani counterparts and itinerant jihadis. But nagging fears also persist of a major terrorist outrage aimed directly at the US, mounted from the Hindu Kush and coinciding with the presidential election’s climax.

“The worst thing that could happen to the US-Pakistani relationship would be another large al-Qaedastrike against the US staged from the tribal areas — a possibility that is frighteningly real,” the Washington Post said last Saturday. Recognising the situation’s political complexity, the paper called for a careful, flexible US response. But it also suggested unilateral US military action, such as last week’s CIA Predator drone missile strike on a presumed al-Qaedatarget deep inside Pakistan, may be necessary and justified.

Pakistani officials complain that Predator attacks — there have been several over the past year — invariably kill civilians and alienate the local population. “The new government has been holding talks with the Islamists. But whenever we seem to be making progress one of the US drones seems to lose its way. It’s perpetually happening,” a senior Pakistani official said. “We’re saying to the US, now we’re a civilian government, please give us time to get results. Drones and gunships will not resolve the issue.”

Such arguments are undermined by heavy fighting in the past week in Swat, where a May ceasefire with the Taliban has collapsed and by US intelligence findings that members of Pakistan’s military-run Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, rejecting attempts to assert civilian control, are collaborating with the jihadis and assisted last month’s bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul.

These events have underscored US suspicions that Gilani does not control the military and intelligence apparatus put in place by his political enemy and former army chief, Pervez Musharraf, who still holds the presidency.

They have also strengthened the hand of those in Washington who, egged on by an increasingly alarmed Indian government and by the beleaguered Karzai, feel the US must take charge.

Unless the political situation turns around dramatically, the extension of the Afghan war into western Pakistani territory now looks highly probable. And while US involvement will be limited, those restrictions may become increasingly elastic.

Under discussion now, according to US and Pakistani officials, are plans for the insertion of US-trained Pakistani special forces into the border badlands, backed by US advisers and US air power; the deployment of more sophisticated US-supplied technology and communications equipment; increased intelligence sharing; and greater use of Predator missile strikes.

The plans are still under discussion. But Congressional threats to withhold military and other funding if Pakistan demurs, and offers of big economic assistance packages if it plays ball, suggest the Americans will get their way.

They should be careful what they wish for. By any measure, this is a fraught undertaking. And given the brutal history of an ungoverned region the British signally failed to tame, the Americans may come to rue the day they crossed the Durand Line. —

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