Pakistan Behind the Taliban

Information is Denmark’s leading mainstream commentary newspaper, and now its writers have responded to the recent report of President Bush approving American military actions within Pakistan without any need for permission from or warning to the Pakistani authorities with a pair of analyses: USA moves the terror-war to Pakistan, by Graham Usher, and USA’s war against terror lies in ruins, by Martin Burcharth.

“Lies in ruins”? That is not Burcharth’s opinion, but rather that of a couple of American academic experts that he interviewed, including Politics Prof. Steven van Evera of MIT: “It took five years to soothe the revolt in Iraq. In the meantime Osama bin Laden has rebuilt his strength in Pakistan. . . . This is completely unacceptable.” What is more, since 2001 Pakistan has received $10 billion in US aid in exchange for an implicit promise to take action to root out the Taliban and other Islamic militants sheltering within its borders – a promise which has now been implicitly devalued through that new, “secret” assertion from President Bush’s office that US forces will feel free to move into Pakistan to undertake that task themselves.

In Search of a Trophy

Why did it happen that Bush signed that particular order just relatively recently, in July? Well, what has been the big development in that part of the world over the past summer? That would be the fall from power of Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, who announced his resignation (in the face of impending impeachment) to the nation in a televised address on 18 August. Clearly the Bush administration was well aware of Musharraf’s weakening position well before things came to that; and where it had been willing to rely on Musharraf ever since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 to hit the Islamists in the tribal border areas – including not undermining him by violating the Pakistani border with NATO forces – it finally ran out of patience when it became clear that either Musharraf would soon be gone, or he would at least be a much less-powerful figure, under siege from his enemies in the new Parliament.

In a very pleasingly comprehensive manner, in his article Graham Usher lists three main reasons why Bush took the significant step of issuing that order in July:

  1. He is genuinely afraid of losing the struggle in Afghanistan. Just as NATO will seems to be flagging, with withdrawals of coalition troops seeming a much better bet than further contributions because of flagging political will in the home countries, so is the pressure increasing from a stepped-up volume of cross-border incursions into the country from Pakistan. Something needed to be done to reverse this momentum.
  2. The trust between the CIA and the ISI (that’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the main Pakistani intelligence agency) is shot by now. One big, big annoyance leading to Bush’s new policy was the growing sense American military authorities had that tipping off the Pakistani’s to an incursion into their country only resulted in that information being passed along to those targeted by it. And then it seemed rather clear that the ISI had played a leading role in last July’s bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.
  3. Finally, there is also the issue of George W. Bush’s continual attempts to fashion a suitable “legacy” before he has to leave office. As Usher quotes one source: “Bush wishes to capture a real al-Qaeda top-figure in the tribal areas. He would love to be able to say to the American voters that the Iraq problem is solved and the Afghanistan problem is on the way to becoming solved. Only the Pakistani tribal areas stand in the way.”

The problem here, though, is that this new policy is very high-risk because of the tremendous pressure it puts on the new Pakistani government, and particularly on the new president, Asif Ali Zardari. In the wake of the American cross-border attack that killed 20 people, Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kiyani warned that his forces would fight back against such attacks. The new prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, endorsed that stand. Only Zardari has yet to react; perhaps he owes the Americans too much, in terms not only of the continuing aid-money, but also because of the influence they exerted to make Pervez Musharraf go away peacefully last August in the first place.

This is dangerous in view of the fact, asserted by Usher, that the Taliban in those tribal provinces are now supported by the broad majority of Pakistani public opinion – including that of the Army’s lower ranks. It seems President Zardari is now merely the fig-leaf barely obscuring Pakistan’s fundamental and thorough-going refusal to get on the “right” side of NATO’s and Afghanistan’s war with the Taliban – and how long can we expect that he will last?

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