Dissension in Pakistan's ranks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad KARACHI - Al-Qaeda's grand strategy is based on a simple notion - given the American cowboy mentality, if the United States is confronted, it will react in an extreme manner. Hence, with the small military successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, through its media campaigns, has created a sense of American failures on the battlefield and challenged the ego of the world's superpower with its rhetoric. The response of the George W Bush administration has been as expected, with a renewed effort to go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas, even at the cost of isolation within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and at the cost of alienating it; from frontline ally Pakistan, which is seriously divided over its role in prosecuting the "war on terror". Islamabad was stunned by President George W Bush's speech at the US National Defense University on Tuesday in which he named Pakistan as one of the major battlegrounds in the fight against terrorism and that the US has stepped up raids into Pakistani territory from Afghanistan to attack militants. On Wednesday there was another shock in the form of a detailed roadmap of American strategy outlined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, during an address to the US Congress. The key element of this is the conviction that the only way to win in Afghanistan is to open a new war theater in Pakistan. The speech was in fact a tacit admission of the failure in Afghanistan seven years after the Taliban were ousted, and Mullen conceded that the US was "running out of time" to win the war in Afghanistan and that simply sending in more troops would not guarantee victory. "In my view, these two nations [Pakistan and Afghanistan] are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them," he said, adding that he planned "to commission a new, more comprehensive strategy for the region, one that covers both sides of the border". On Thursday, the US's all-weather partner, Britain, supported the US's recommendations, but NATO clarified its position that it had nothing to do with American policies and its mandate was restricted to the Afghan borders. Bush is reported to have secretly approved orders in July allowing US special forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan, and the Pakistani leadership was taken on board. Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani assured the US that the Pakistan People's Party-led government would support the policy. This was further reinforced during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani's visit to Washington. Nevertheless, the issue has become a litmus test for the Pakistani security forces, which are now obliged to follow the US's dotted lines in conducting military operations in the tribal areas, despite the intense hostilities these create. The latest offensive took place on Wednesday in Bajaur Agency on the border with Afghanistan this week where troops, supported by tanks and heavy artillery, are said by Pakistani officials to have killed 80 to 100 militants, including foreigners, with two soldiers killed. Militants use the tribal areas as bases for raids into Afghanistan. On Thursday, however, when the army sent in ground forces to secure the area, militants attacked their convoys and forced them back into their forts. Pakistan's corps commanders began meetings on Thursday to discuss the situation. They realize they are unable to prevail against the militants in the long term, but they are under intense US pressure to act. Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kiani has criticized the US over this, even though he is well briefed by the US on what is expected of Pakistan and of the US's cross-border intentions. Kiani issued a statement saying that the rules of engagement with coalition forces were well defined and "within that, the right to conduct operations against the militants inside own territory is solely the responsibility of the respective armed forces". "There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border." Kiani said. He referred to his meeting with senior US Army officers aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on August 27, saying they were informed about the complexity of the issue and that it required a deeper understanding and patience. Kiani said he had impressed on the officers that "military action alone cannot solve the problem. Political reconciliatory efforts are required to go along with the military prong to win the hearts and minds of the people." Kiani is making the correct noises, but one has to question his sincerity. This month, Pakistan announced that because of the US ground assault in South Waziristan, it was stopping NATO supplies at the Torkham border. But not only were NATO supplies allowed to continue into Afghanistan within a few hours, after two attacks on Pakistan by US Predator drones, Pakistan stayed silent. (Another drone attack on Friday in North Waziristan killed 12 people.) Pakistan's corps commanders are clearly not convinced by Kiani's statements as they are the ones who have to send troops into the firing line, which is highly unpopular at the best of times. The country has made a paradigm shift from Pervez Musharraf's seven years in charge as president and military chief. In his time, military operations were half-hearted and mainly targeted foreign elements such as Arabs and Uzbeks and Pakistan never discussed the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters. The result was that the Taliban were able to establish a strong foothold in the tribal areas for their operations in Afghanistan, which is what upsets the US and NATO so much and which is why now they are forcing Pakistan to go directly after the Taliban and their supporters. This week's operation in Bajaur was specifically aimed at clearing Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border. Over the past months, several thousand Taliban had assembled there in preparation for launches into Afghanistan and the last batch was about to go in the final phase of the spring offensive before the winter sets in. Mullen explained this in his speech, "We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan, as I watched us do during a day-long trip to the Korengal Valley in July. But until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming." This America-Pakistan "joint venture" marks a new struggle in Pakistan which can only intensify when, for instance, US special forces launch more raids into Pakistan, conceivably as deep as the capital of North-West Frontier Province, Peshawar, to nab powerful Taliban commanders. Much will depend on how the corps commanders react, given that they are aware that their chief (Kiani) and the political leadership have agreed, if only tacitly, to the "joint venture" with the US. Kiani does not have a strong constituency in the military, as Musharraf did, and he might stand with his military commanders and decide on a policy to limit cooperation with the US in the "war on terror". It is also possible, though, that he will stamp on opposition in the ranks and purge any corps commanders who disagree with the new policy, as Musharraf did after he stopped Pakistan's support of the Taliban following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. His danger in siding with his commanders is that he will then be on a collision course with the powerful new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who has it in his powers to remove Kiani. Conversely, if Kiani purges the forces, he will have the full backing of Zardari. In this delicate situation, the balance could be tipped by India, on US instigation, mobilizing forces on the Line of Control that separates the Indian- and Pakistan-administered sections of Kashmir, as happened in December 2001. And as happened then, Pakistan will be left with no option but to surrender to America's will in both letter and spirit. Whichever way Kiani jumps, al-Qaeda has succeeded in goading the US into opening a third war theater beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com (Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.