Pakistan stares into a valley of death
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's military headquarters has decided in principle to mount
a military operation in the North Waziristan tribal area before the start of
the Taliban's summer offensive in Afghanistan next year.
The decision has been taken at a point that Washington has dropped any idea of
dialogue with the Taliban, preferring to rely solely on brute force - a sudden
shift in policy that Pakistan refers to as changing horses in midstream.
At the same time, Pakistan's political leadership refuses to take ownership of
the North Waziristan operation, leaving the armed
forces alone to decide on its strategy.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan for many months to move against
al-Qaeda and related militants based in the tribal area, which also serves as a
crucial staging post for the Taliban-led insurgency across the porous border in
Afghanistan. The US wants to see its successful drone missile attacks against
militants followed up with ground action.
Although the Pakistan military has taken on militants in other tribal areas,
Islamabad has been reluctant to send troops into the highly volatile North
Waziristan, both for fear of a bitter fight and for a militant backlash across
This would still be the case, and something that the army would have to
consider very carefully.
"Given the environment [in North Waziristan] in which the Pakistan army is
being forced to decide on an operation, it would definitely be
counter-productive. It would be like playing with a beehive. The reaction would
be disastrous, not only in Pakistani cities, but in Western capitals as well,"
a senior counter-terrorism official told Asia Times Online.
Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani has repeatedly urged his
American counterpart to be pragmatic and seriously take into account the
likelihood of a fierce reaction.
Nevertheless, the US and its Western allies are insistent that Pakistan should
take action against al-Qaeda, given the exposure in recent months of
al-Qaeda-linked terror networks in various countries with roots in Pakistan.
These include Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty in the United
States to receiving funds and training from the Taliban in Pakistan to detonate
a bomb in Times Square in New York in May, and the subsequent arrest of nine of
his associates in Pakistan.
Similarly, the arrest of Ahmad Siddiqui in Afghanistan and the seizure of a
German citizen and others in Pakistan showed that al-Qaeda was far from the
spent force that many had believed.
Commander Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani who cut his teeth in the Kashmir struggle
against India and then moved to North Waziristan to side with al-Qaeda, is the
mastermind behind recruiting, training and then launching operatives. Kashmiri
is widely viewed in the Western media as the most dangerous person in the
North Waziristan is also the base of the powerful Haqqani network of Jalaluddin
and his son Sirajuddin; it is a major driver of the insurgency in Afghanistan
and is becoming increasingly more powerful and violent. It poses a serious
threat to coalition forces and to the planned transition of responsibilities to
Afghan forces to coincide with the planned beginning of a drawdown of foreign
forces in the middle of next year.
For these reasons, Washington has applied relentless pressure on Pakistan -
including both carrots and sticks - to force it to launch a full ground
operation supported by the Pakistani Air Force and US drones.
Army chief Kiani, who is accredited with successes against militants in
Swat-Malakand and South Waziristan and who essentially rescued Pakistani cities
from falling to the Taliban, is concerned.
These earlier successes were a cunning blend of brute force and ceasefire
agreements in which militants were pushed into a corner and then through smart
backroom peace overtures brought into line. Kiani wants continuity of this
policy and even to expand it across the region.
The Americans would prefer the army to go in guns blazing, firing at al-Qaeda
and the Taliban as if at a partridge shoot.
Kiani, with politicians having washed their hands of any decision-making, while
committed to action, prefers limited surgical strikes. He believes that the
Americans simply do not appreciate the difficulties involved, nor that the
country is economically reeling from devastating floods this year and that a
full-out assault would rupture the peace process with militants in other areas.
A vicious cycle of terror attacks would be the inevitable result.
US steps up the pressure
The real American pressure on Pakistan to mount a military operation in North
Waziristan began in October 2009, but Pakistan stalled.
In the meantime, the US tried to initiate talks with the Taliban, which gave
Pakistan further reason to delay taking action. By October this year, the US
had come to realize that the wish to talk to the Taliban was a mirage, and in a
strategic dialogue in Washington the US made a clear demand for Kiani to let
loose his men.
In November, Richard Holbrooke, the US's special representative for Afghanistan
and Pakistan, announced the US would reallocate US$500 million in aid funds to
benefit flood victims - a clear encouragement for Pakistan.
Kiani could not be that easily swayed - the reality remained that even firing a
single shot in North Waziristan would mean opening up a battle front. He
advocated that such a momentous decision should be taken by parliament.
Kiani put out feelers for this. First, he contacted the president of the
second-largest political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, and the chief
minister of Punjab, the largest province, Shebaz Sharif, the younger brother of
former premier Nawaz Sharif. He is a progressive politician and committed
against militancy, especially since the recent attacks on shrines in Punjab.
However, Shebaz said it would not be wise for Pakistan to exhibit such a
political will. He, however, assured the army chief of his support.
Minister of Interior Rahman Malik, a close aid of President Asif Ali Zardari,
expressed the same sentiment. Similarly, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani,
when asked about an operation in North Waziristan, threw the ball into the
army's court. "The military chief is fully empowered to take any decision
regarding military operations."
A Pakistani counter-terrorism official involved in the recent unsuccessful
peace overtures with the Taliban commented, "The Pakistan army was trying to
make ground with the Taliban for negotiations, but now the Americans have
abandoned everything and are pushing for an operation.
"They had said they wanted to speak to the 'good' Taliban, but the Haqqani
network is no longer defined as good. If an operation is begun in North
Waziristan, no matter how low-intensity, any chance for an end game through
peace negotiations is gone. They cannot be switched on again and off again at
will," the official said.
Kiani is in an unenviable position - damned if he mobilizes his troops, damned
if he does not, and abandoned by his political masters.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and
author of upcoming book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban 9/11 and Beyond
published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org