Pakistan’s War of Choice


Peshawar, Pakistan

WHAT are Americans to make of all the good news coming out of Pakistan in recent weeks?

First, the Afghan Taliban’s military chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in a raid in February. Around the same time, several of the Taliban’s “shadow governors” who operate out of Pakistan were captured by Pakistani forces. Last week, the C.I.A. director, Leon Panetta, announced that thanks in large part to increased cooperation from Pakistan, drone strikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are “seriously disrupting Al Qaeda,” and one killed the terrorist suspected of planning an attack on an American base in December that caused the deaths of seven Americans. Meanwhile, Pakistan has mounted major operations against its own extremists in places ranging from the Swat Valley in the north of the country to Bajaur on the Afghan border to South Waziristan further south. Yes, extremists continue to do great damage, as at Lahore on March 14 when about 40 civilians were killed in bombings. But after traveling across the country in recent days as a guest of the Pakistani military, I was convinced that Pakistan has become much more committed to battling extremists over the last couple of years, as the country felt its own security directly threatened.

Things are complicated, as always in this fractious land. Pakistan’s resolve is clearest against its own internal enemies. And while its will to pursue the Afghan Taliban has grown, its policies are changing incrementally, not fundamentally. It is rebuilding trust with America only slowly. And its obsession with India will continue to constrain its ability and willingness to act against the groups that threaten the NATO mission across the Afghan border.

First, though, give credit where credit is due. Pakistan has become deadly serious about its own insurgency, loosely referred to as the Tehrik-i-Taliban. Total Pakistani troops in the North-West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and the tribal areas now number about 150,000, up from 50,000 in 2001. In addition, there are 90,000 paramilitary troops of the Frontier Corps in the area, and they are far better equipped, paid and led than in years past.

As I toured the nerve center of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army’s spokesman, recited an impressive list of statistics. The army now has 821 posts on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as opposed to just 112 manned by NATO and Afghan forces on the other side. Pakistan carried out 209 operations in 2009 of brigade size or larger (that is, involving at least 3,000 troops), twice as many as in the previous two years combined. Convoys bringing supplies for the NATO mission in Afghanistan used to be preyed on frequently by terrorists and thieves; but as a result of the improved security, NATO is now losing only about 0.1 percent of the goods it ships across Pakistan.

Carrying out all these operations has been very costly, though. The Pakistani military says it had some 800 soldiers killed in operations last year, in contrast with NATO’s total losses in Afghanistan of 520. Thousands of Pakistanis have lost their lives in terrorist attacks, and several hundred village elders, critical figures in any efforts to pacify the tribal areas, have been killed as well.

Most Pakistanis feel, with some justification, they have suffered all this as the result of American decisions and interests. Pakistan didn’t experience suicide bombings until the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistanis do not begrudge us that act of self-defense, but do expect us to appreciate the sacrifices they have made. And, while Pakistanis acknowledge American economic help, they consider the $17 billion or so that we have provided since 9/11 to equal only about half their total costs, direct and indirect, from the war on terrorism.

Still, Pakistan is hitting the terrorists hard. As a top commander of the Frontier Corps told me from his centuries-old fort here in Peshawar, since 2007 or 2008 he has known that there has been “no turning back.” This means ensuring that militants — or “miscreants,” as Pakistanis like to say — do not return to those areas that have been cleared in recent months.

This won’t be easy. Often, Pakistani military tactics amount to notifying the local population of a pending mission and asking people to leave before the assault. Afterward, the population is allowed to return — but any extremists who had snuck out with the people can then try to sneak back in with them.

Pakistan also doesn’t want to fight over too much of its territory at any one time. The other day I visited a camp for the displaced near here, with about 100,000 residents. Most fled from recent military operations in Bajaur and Khyber, near the Afghanistan border. Fortunately, the camp’s previous residents, from Swat, were able to go home before the new influx. Conditions at the camp are tough but tolerable, partly because Pakistan has not launched additional operations recently. Islamabad’s deliberateness makes Washington impatient at times, but there is a strategic logic to it.

In the near term, any progress will be fitful. Pakistan seems unwilling to move much more of its army away from the Indian border, meaning a further delay before operations commence in North Waziristan — home to the Haqqani network, a radical group headed by the Taliban commander Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, which is believed to be behind some of the largest attacks in recent years.

I did not meet any Pakistanis who actually seemed to wish to see the Afghan Taliban back in power. But the country simply does not have the military capacity to make major moves against the Afghan fundamentalists. And, less understandably, Pakistanis tend to see Indian conspiracies behind what is happening in Afghanistan, and fear being trapped between their longtime nemesis on one side and an Indian puppet on the other.

At the headquarters of the Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, I was told that India was suspected of providing explosives to Tehrik-i-Taliban extremists through Afghanistan. Many Pakistanis claim that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is essentially a reincarnation of the old Northern Alliance from the Afghan civil war — a union largely made up of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks and partly financed by India. (This despite the fact that Afghanistan’s ministers of defense and interior are Pashtun, as is President Karzai.)Pakistanis wonder why India is building so many consulates in Afghanistan, and even Indian-subsidized health clinics are considered suspicious.

As he departed for a “strategic dialogue” this week in Washington, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, announced that “it’s time for the United States to do more.” This isn’t what America wants to hear from an oft-unreliable ally. But we must bear in mind that the Pakistani government rules one of the most anti-American populations in the world, and even its elites see us as oft-unreliable ourselves. Washington must stay realistic, and patient, about what can be expected of Pakistan.

Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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