Beneath US-Pakistani tension, a new cooperation

Joint efforts include setting up coordination centers along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Patrol: A US soldier in Afghanistan near Pakistan. The US has tried to target militants across the border, on occasion with Pakistan's help.
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    Talks: Afghan tribal leaders listen to an opening speech at a two-day jirga that ended Tuesday. The delegates agreed to seek negotiations with Taliban militants.
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    Jirga: In a sign of thawing Afghan-Pakistani ties, political and tribal leaders from both nations met this week in Pakistan to discuss ways to stem militancy. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (c.) attended.
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Amid stories of missile strikes and firefights between Pakistani and American forces on the Afghan border, Brig. Gen. Mark Milley has his own to tell.

Two weeks ago, insurgents in Pakistan lobbed mortars at US forces in Afghanistan. When the Americans alerted the Pakistani Army, its response was unambiguous. Not only could the US fire back, but Pakistani soldiers acted as spotters.

It is one small example of how Pakistan is starting to cooperate more with the US and Afghanistan in fighting the insurgency in its tribal areas. Attempts to find solutions jointly are being made across a wide spectrum, from the opening of border coordination centers shared by the three nations' armies to talks among tribal leaders.

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The shift is born of a growing recognition in the Pakistani Army of the danger of the insurgency, as well as thawing relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There are suspicions to overcome – going back decades, in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The council, or "jirga," of Afghan and Pakistani tribal leaders in Islamabad, Pakistan, that ended Tuesday is a sign of strengthening cross-border ties that have long been strained. Yet the US campaign of unilaterally firing missiles at militant targets inside Pakistan is evidence of lingering mistrust.

Still, both regional experts and General Milley, deputy commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force 101 in Afghanistan, say greater regional cooperation is central to defeating an insurgency that pays little attention toborders.

"This [Afghan] insurgency is only half the insurgency," says Milley. "What we have to do is work closely with the sovereign nation of Pakistan and the sovereign nation of Afghanistan to have success in full."

Wary neighbors reach out

At the two-day "mini-jirga" concluded Tuesday, prominent Pashtun political and tribal leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan discussed ways to stem militancy. Both sides agreed to seek talks with the Taliban, though that option was favored more by Pakistani delegates than Afghan ones.

The 50-man mini-jirga was the first follow-up to the grand jirga held in Kabul last August, despite plans to hold mini-jirgas every two months thereafter. Improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have created space for the mini-jirgas to resume.

"The mini-jirga is a welcome signal," says Aimal Khan, a tribal expert at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has made significant efforts to reach out to Afghanistan since he took office last month. Not only did he offer Afghan President Hamid Karzai the olive branch of an invitation to his inauguration, but his government has initiated a new dialogue with Kabul.

This contrasts strikingly to the previous regime of Pervez Musharraf. "Musharraf and Karzai … looked at each other as adversaries," says Rifaat Hussain, a military analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

For decades, Afghanistan and Pakistan have viewed each other with deep suspicion. Pakistan resents Afghanistan's strong friendship with archrival India and fears that such an alliance – if allowed to grow – could result in Pakistan being surrounded by enemies.

Afghans say Pakistan has prevented this by repeatedly interfering in Afghanistan's domestic affairs – for example, its support of the Taliban in the 1990s and the mujahideen before that.

At an Oct. 22 meeting in Islamabad with his Afghan counterpart, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said: "We have been able to overcome the hiccups of the past."

Efforts at military cooperation

Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak has gone so far as to propose a joint border force of American, Pakistani, and Afghan soldiers that could engage terrorists without regard for international borders. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, called it "a great idea."

"This will increase honesty and trust," says Gen. Abdul Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Army spokesman.

While Mr. Wardak's suggestion has not been officially endorsed in Washington or Islamabad, the process of military-to-military cooperation is taking place daily in an outpost on the rugged border near the Khyber Pass – the main thoroughfare between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Khyber Border Coordination Center is both the biggest test – and the biggest hope – of this nascent cross-border collaboration. In it, Afghan, Pakistani, and American soldiers sit side by side, tasked with one goal: to better synchronize the operations of the three armies.

"It is your left hand talking to your right hand," says Milley, whose Combined Joint Task Force 101 provides American troops for the facility.

The facility near the Khyber Pass opened two months ago. It is the first of six planned coordination centers, designed as nodes for communication between Pakistani and coalition forces along the border.

"These centers are enormously important," says Lisa Curtis, a South Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "They're the only way we're going to start to get control over the border."

While their functions are limited – they will do no intelligence-gathering, for example – there is a need for simply establishing some measure of transparency among the three armies.

For example, America's unilateral missile strikes in Pakistan are partially because the US distrusts the Pakistani Army, says Professor Hussain. The Central Intelligence Agency has alleged that rogue elements of the Pakistani Army support some militant organizations.

"The US is not telling Pakistan [about its missile attacks] on the suspicion that the intelligence might be compromised," says Hussain.

Mistrust remains

Indeed, in many respects Pakistan and the US are far from synchronized. American officials are increasingly focusing on militant networks that Pakistan has long cultivated as proxy armies against Afghanistan, such as those of Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"We have not seen an unambiguous policy toward the Taliban" from Pakistan, says Ms. Curtis.

To the contrary, recent debates in the Pakistani parliament condemned US missile strikes and revealed a significant degree of sympathy for those elements of the militancy not seen to be a threat to Pakistan.

"Every country operates in its own self-interest," says Milley.

But he sees progress among the Pakistani generals he meets. "There is an increasing recognition of a mutual threat," says Milley. "Six or eight months ago, they might have looked at the problem differently."

The first time he met with generals from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the autumn of 2007, the groups sat on opposite sides of the table and Pakistani officials hardly addressed Afghans, who sat in silence.

Last month, Afghans and Pakistanis were sprinkled around the table and "all sides were talking vigorously," he adds. "Clearly there was respect."

This is the hope, says Curtis. "What we saw in the past was constant accusations: Pakistan blaming NATO for not doing its job, and Afghanistan blaming Pakistan," she says.

"As they sit together, this will build trust – they will share information and get involved in operational planning," she continues.

Adds military analyst Hussain: "If you launch coordinated strikes, and all stakeholders know what's going on, you are not going to have as much hue and cry as you do now."

Shahan Mufti contributed from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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