Pakistan may be more willing to help the United States tackle the Afghan Taliban hiding in its country than it conveys in public – though at a much slower timetable than the United States wants, some Pakistani security analysts say.
A parade of senior US officials has called on Islamabad this month to stress President Barack Obama’s message: that Pakistan must move quickly against the militant groups to complement America’s troop surge in Afghanistan. This week alone saw visits from regional commander Gen. David Petraeus and top military official Adm. Mike Mullen.
Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have rebuffed their request, according to media reports, insisting that the Army is tied down hunting its own militant group, the Pakistani Taliban. The government, meanwhile, is embroiled in a serious political crisis – 250 senior officials, including Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, are facing revived corruption trials, political pressure to resign, and a ban on foreign travel issued Friday by an anticorruption agency.
But Pakistan’s military leaders may confront the Afghan Taliban eventually, not only to ease US pressure but also to reestablish the writ of government.
“There is a mismatch between the Pakistani priorities and what the US would like it to do, but I don’t think in the long run there’s any contradiction. It’s only a question of timing,” says Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. “Inevitably, Pakistan will have to deal with these elements.”
Here’s a briefing on what the US wants from Pakistan, and how Pakistan might be wiling or able to help.
What does the US want from Pakistan?
The US wants Pakistan to move against two Afghan insurgent groups that use Pakistan as a haven to plot attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
First, it is pressing Pakistan to launch an offensive against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, one of seven tribal areas loosely controlled by the government.
Second, it wants to expand drone attacks from the tribal areas into Pakistan proper, specifically to Balochistan Province, where it says the Quetta Shura, Afghan Taliban’s central leadership led by Mullah Omar, is hiding.
The US believes Pakistan is sheltering these Taliban as a strategic asset in case the US withdraws from Afghanistan in defeat and these groups reassert themselves next door.
What is Pakistan willing or able to do?
Military analysts often stress how much Pakistan is doing already. The Army is overstretched patrolling the eastern border against archrival India and battling the Pakistani Taliban in the west, they say, and cannot open another front.
Since October, some 30,000 troops have cleared the Pakistani Taliban’s stronghold of South Waziristan and are now chasing the many militants who fled to nearby tribal areas – an effort that could take several months.
• Haqqani network
But after that, some analysts say the Army may turn its attention to the Haqqani network, moving carefully to avoid provoking the tribes in North Waziristan.
The alternative – to wait around for the US to leave Afghanistan and let the Afghan Taliban take over and remain a controllable asset – is “a little naive,” says Imtiaz Gul, head of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. He, Mr. Hussain, and other analysts believe the Army is not betting on that scenario.
“There’s no way around” acting against these factions, Mr. Gul continues. “It’s because of these groups there’s so much pressure on Pakistan.”
Meanwhile, the military is developing human intelligence in the tribal area that is critical for US airstrikes like the one that killed three people Friday – a tough undertaking in a place where “everybody knows everybody” and collaborators are actively hunted, Gul adds.
The Army can also use its high-level contacts within the Haqqani group to coax it to negotiate with the US about joining a powersharing government in Kabul that the US hopes can help stabilize Afghanistan.
• Quetta Shura
Acting against the Quetta Shura is trickier, because Pakistan fears a massive popular backlash for allowing US drone attacks in its “settled areas.” Airstrikes in this more densely populated location are likely to kill more civilians than in the tribal areas, and be seen as a gross violation of sovereignty.
But US pressure looms large, Hussain acknowledges. The military will have to “either act unilaterally or risk provoking an American response, which will have pretty serious domestic political consequences.”
What does Pakistan want in return?
Simply to continue its current operations, the Army needs more weapons, communications technology, and funding, says Gen. (Ret.) Talat Masood, a security analyst based in Islamabad. Pakistan says its war against militants costs $8.5 billion a year. Since 2001, the US has given Pakistan $7.6 billion in counterterrorism military aid.
Pakistan also wants the US to help improve ties with India by helping resolve their dispute over Kashmir. Such a settlement might persuade Pakistan to redeploy troops guarding against India to fight the Taliban.
It also wants the US to prevent Afghan Taliban from pouring into Pakistan even as it escalates the fight against them. While these militants may not supply the Pakistani Taliban with more fighters or weapons, they could push them to fight harder. Afghan refugees may also flood Pakistan to avoid the rise in violence.
Though the US and Pakistan worry about this spillover, both say they lack the manpower to guard the 1,600-mile-long border.
Just how important is Pakistan’s help?
The Obama administration has repeatedly stressed how critical Pakistan’s cooperation is to its success in Afghanistan. But some Pakistani analysts – even those who agree the Army should fight the Afghan Taliban – question how much influence the Quetta Shura wields on the battlefield.
Some accuse the US of using Pakistan as a scapegoat for its failure in Afghanistan. When the US was losing in Vietnam, it blamed Cambodia, says former Interior minister Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Hamid Nawaz. In Iraq, it blamed Syria and Iran, he says. Now America has failed to cripple the insurgency in Afghanistan and is blaming Pakistan “just to take the pressure off itself.”
At the least, the US relies heavily on Pakistan to protect the supplies it sends to its forces in Afghanistan. Seventy percent of goods are shipped over the Afghan-Pakistani border, and deliveries will mount as more US soldiers arrive.
How is the US-Pakistani relationship?
The Obama administration is balancing between respecting a sovereign nation and key ally, and pushing it to assist the US’s agenda. Military officials on both sides have signaled frustration with the other, according to media reports.
In recent weeks, American officials appear to have softened their rhetoric from “do more or else” to partnership and appreciation. But the US is still applying pressure, for example, reserving the option to launch airstrikes in Balochistan without a green light.
Pakistan is pushing back by trying to convince the US how damaging such actions might be.
“There’s a convergence of interest on both sides” to restrict the movements of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, says Masood. But the US “should also understand there are a lot of limitations.”