Pakistan, the next target?

The US-led global war against terrorism has entered a crucial stage. Afghanistan is fast running out of Al Qaeda operatives and their Taliban supporters. The new front is Pakistan, where the Al Qaeda leadership and possibly even Osama bin Laden may be hiding among Pashtun tribal supporters who remain pro-Taliban. Recent media reports tell of secret US operations inside Pakistan along the tribal borderland. Pakistani intelligence and military units are said to be cooperating.

But tensions have developed between the US and its most crucial ally in the war, Pakistan. On the one hand, the US apparently wants to go big and begin attacking perceived concentrations of Al Qaeda members and their followers, notably in the Waziristan tribal belt. On the other, Pakistan believes any show of massive foreign force in the shape of US troops and air power is bound to instill enough hatred in the tribal belt and among thousands of Islamic militants elsewhere in Pakistan to unseat even President Pervez Musharraf.

That move might bring in more conservative and Islamic-minded generals to the helm. To lend credence to that scenario, there have been anti-US demonstrations in the tribal belt.

In such a likely fallout, what is the US to do? For starters, it will have to become more focused on a longer-term solution that envisions rooting out the causes rather than the symptoms of terrorism in that part of the world. A quick-fix solution like getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait or Slobodan Milosevic's army from Kosovo cannot be applied to the war on terrorism.

Getting immediate relief from the death or capture of known terrorists is one thing, but conquering a country to do that is another. While bombing the smithereens out of Al Qaeda caves and denying its members haven in the mountains of Afghanistan is a preferred military tactic, the pursuit of those who escaped across the border into Pakistan will require other options.

Just as Afghanistan's rebel Northern Alliance played its part in getting rid of the Taliban government that harbored Al Qaeda, the US will need the Pakistani government and its Army and intelligence services to cooperate – and this cooperation may very well be dictated by that country's domestic concerns.

Despite US intelligence reports of concentrations of Al Qaeda and their ilk in some areas in Pakistan, mass bombing is out of the question. Nabbings must be attempted with the aid of Pakistani forces who know the area, the people, and the language much better. If Pakistan feels that it cannot spare enough of its military forces for this terrorist effort because of its standoff against India, then this must also be examined and given thought.

Is India – also an ally in the region – thwarting the US-led war on terrorism by continuing to maintain a hostile posture against Pakistan over the Kashmir issue? Cannot the US cajole India to cooperate with Pakistan to stop terrorism from Afghanistan spilling over into Pakistan and eventually to Kashmir? As the border confrontation with India has heated up, Pakistan has been transferring troops from the Afghan border to confront the new threat.

The other half of the equation is the need for caution by the US when going after former mujahideen leaders who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to '89. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani were heroes for the Afghan people, if not to all Western backers. In hunting for them now, because they are pro-Taliban and oppose the Afghan interim government, the US may be lending support to the Pashtun tribesmen's historical sense of not trusting foreign invaders – first the British, then the Soviets, and now the Americans.

If US bombings kill more civilians and tribal leaders presumed to be pro-Al Qaeda or pro-Taliban, this xenophobia will be directed with a vengeance at Americans despite the massive aid and support being given – albeit mostly to the Tajik-dominated Kabul government.

A corollary to this is that support of the Pashtun tribes in eradicating terrorism must be in tangible monetary terms. Just as the British Raj prevented them from raiding the settled towns by providing subsidies to their leaders and enlisting them to guard the borders, the US must now revive this "great game" diplomacy. A Pashtun tribesman from Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan's borderland can be rented – if not bought – by the highest bidder.

If Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members are being harbored there, they must be paying good money, because in the end the borderland Pashtun only looks after himself, regardless of religious and other ideological sentiments.

• Afzal Khan is a former editor with the US Information Agency and Jane's of London.

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