FINANCIAL TIMES, November 11 2010
Pakistan: A battered bulwark
By Matthew Green and Daniel Dombey
Razor-edged peaks, forgotten valleys and fortress-like farmsteads scroll past in a vista of terrain that could have been designed for guerrilla war. There is no better place to see the challenge Pakistan faces in fighting militants than the spot next to the machine-gunner in an army helicopter flying into Taliban country.
The crew fling open the doors to watch for insurgents sheltering in orchards far below. Hands sheathed in leather gloves against the cold, the gunner keeps vigil.
Washington is desperate for Pakistan to broaden its campaign into the province of North Waziristan, perhaps the chief haven for al-Qaeda fighters and Afghan warlords staging cross-border attacks on Nato forces. Pakistan's generals are elusive about their intentions, pointing out that they have sacrificed more troops in these tribal areas than America has lost in Afghanistan. "Everywhere there are reasons to go in, and there are reasons not to go in," says Lieutenant-General Asif Yasin Malik, a Pakistani commander visiting a base perched in the highlands of Orakzai, scene of the army's latest offensive. "It's a question of timing."
The US needs Gen Malik's help more than ever. President Barack Obama's gamble that sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan could save the west's campaign has yet to deliver decisive dividends. Violence has surged. Visions of revitalising the Afghan state have collided with messy reality. Disillusionment has grown among European allies, who will pore over exit strategies at a Nato summit in Lisbon this month.
Pakistan holds the tantalising possibility of a turnround. If the military can be induced to confront Taliban groups it once backed, US strategists reason, the Afghan insurgency might finally start to subside. Mr Obama's strategy would be vindicated.
There are signs that the Pakistani generals' thinking is changing. Ambitious operations in the past year show that the army takes more seriously than before the threat that militants pose. But their calculus is not shifting fast enough to increase chances of US success in Afghanistan sufficiently, or to deal a convincing blow to jihadists intent on attacking the west.
One reason is Pakistan's fragility, underlined again on Thursday by a big bombing in Karachi, the commercial capital. Another, perhaps more fundamental, reason is that the country enjoys a remarkably strong hand in dealing with its superpower patron. As long as Nato troops in Afghanistan depend on supply lines flowing through Pakistan, Islamabad knows there is a limit to the pressure Washington can exert. Rather than caving in to demands to fight Afghan militants, Pakistan would prefer to broker a peace deal to secure its interests in Kabul, however distant the prospect might seem.
"The growing threat the security forces face inside their own country has made stability across the border even more desirable," says Richard Barrett, head of a UN team that monitors the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "The role Pakistan could play is to deliver the Taliban to the table."
For years, Pakistan's army has played a double game, accepting US aid while continuing to back Taliban leaders as proxies to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. Mr Obama has sought to convince Pakistan to abandon this policy by offering to remake the fraught alliance between Washington and Islamabad. He wants to convince Pakistan that its interests would be better protected by smashing bases used by the Haqqani network of Afghan fighters in North Waziristan in return for a long-term partnership.
Washington has buttressed that offer with legislation to deliver $7.5bn of civilian aid over five years, an effort to shake off America's image in Pakistan as a fair-weather friend. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, promised last month that Washington would deliver military aid to Pakistan until 2016, well beyond the envisaged end of Nato's combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014. This is particularly important given fears in Islamabad that the struggle against domestic insurgents could last for years. Washington sees Pakistan as strategically far more significant than Afghanistan – because it hosts both al-Qaeda leaders and nuclear weapons.
American officials acknowledge that there is no quick fix for Pakistan, particularly given the weakness of its civil institutions, but there are signs that the army is starting to question the cost of its long romance with extremists.
When Taliban marched to within 100km of the Pakistani capital last year, the army mobilised its biggest offensive in the north-west of the country, pushing into the Swat Valley and then South Waziristan and other tribal areas – though not North Waziristan. Pakistan now has some 147,000 troops involved in the operation, a significant shift from its traditional focus on the Indian border. "In the last 20 months there has been a considerable change in their strategic calculation about what is in their own best interests," Mrs Clinton said this week. "They have in the past hedged against both India and an unfriendly regime in Afghanistan by supporting groups that will be their proxies ... I cannot sit here and tell you that it has changed, but that is changing."
Nevertheless, the White House itself noted in a recent report to Congress that Pakistan has struggled to hold territory it has wrested from the insurgents. The report attributes the country's failure to move into North Waziristan as much to a lack of political will as to limited resources.
The army has chosen its battles carefully, leaving militants untouched in part of South Waziristan, for example, to avoid setting off a wider backlash. Officers bristle at US pressure, complaining that promised aid has been slow to materialise. Floods in August piled further demands on the army. "The US and Nato need to trust Pakistan and can't be seen as ordering [an] ally around," General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's powerful army chief, was quoted as saying at a recent briefing. "Partnership doesn't mean 'you say and we act'."
The sheer intensity of the conflict has blurred the army's distinction between "good" militants it relies on as proxies and "bad" militants intent on overthrowing the state. Perhaps the best example is Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. Initially fostered by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to fight in Kashmir, Lashkar-e-Taiba has since splintered, with some elements appearing to slip out of state control. Western officials fear these members are intent on staging al-Qaeda-style attacks in the west.
Pakistan's military is also finding that its traditional Afghan proxies are proving unruly. The ISI helped the Taliban sweep to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and sheltered its leaders after the US invasion in 2001. Yet relations with a leadership council headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, are strained. Ties with the Haqqani network, traditionally closer to the ISI, are also believed to be tense. The group, blamed for a series of audacious suicide attacks in Kabul, forms one of the most potent strands in the Afghan insurgency.
But Mr Obama's intention to start withdrawing American forces next July has boosted Pakistan's incentive to shield its Afghan allies. "Kayani and others are hedging their bets because of this date for withdrawal," says John McCain, the Republican US senator. "They still see their greatest threat coming from India." Indeed, Mr Obama's endorsement of New Delhi's quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council this week left Islamabad fuming.
Pakistan seems to have calculated that its best bet is to use its influence over Taliban leaders to shape a settlement that would anchor the movement's ethnic Pashtun constituency in a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. US officials acknowledge that Islamabad is concerned at the prospect of any Afghan deal that excludes Pakistan.
General David Petraeus, head of the Nato-led force in Afghanistan, is using special forces to raise the pressure on Taliban field commanders, but it is unclear whether this will convince leaders sheltering in Pakistan to negotiate. In North Waziristan, the US is waging an intensified campaign of drone strikes against the Haqqanis, but the impact is limited without Pakistani boots on the ground.
US attempts to take a more aggressive approach backfired when an American helicopter chasing militants into Pakistan killed two soldiers. Pakistan closed a supply route into Afghanistan for 10 days. Hundreds of Nato tankers were burnt. Some suspect it may have been elements in the security forces who torched the trucks to underscore that Pakistan would not bow to American pressure.
Pakistan's ambiguous relationship with the militants carries risks. Should one of the groups living in the Haqqanis' neighbourhood stage an attack on an American city, Mr Obama might feel compelled to launch a wave of retaliatory strikes. In his recent book Obama's Wars, the veteran journalist Bob Woodward describes US "retribution plans" to bomb up to 150 safe havens in the country – plans that could have been triggered if a May 1 attempt to bomb New York's Times Square, hatched in North Waziristan, had succeeded.
But Bruce Riedel, who chaired an Afghanistan-Pakistan review for Mr Obama at the start of 2009, doubts the US could ever mount such an assault. "Let's suppose that Kayani authorised Mumbai and watched it on television cheering," he says. "What are we going to do about it?"
Recalling the recent blockade, he adds: "When the Pakistanis close the Khyber pass, what are our forces in Afghanistan going to start eating, what are they going to drink?"