October 2, 2006

October 2, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Pakistan Pickle

The Pakistani government's summer truce with the pro-Taliban tribesman in northern Waziristan, on the Afghan border, may be good for President Pervez Musharraf's political health, but it's sure hurting Afghanistan - where the Coalition fight with the Taliban is definitely on.

Since the peace pact was reached, Taliban attacks in southern Afghanistan have jumped a whopping 300 percent, reports the U.S. military.

Sheer coincidence? Not a chance.

Musharraf said the deal would quiet the restive tribal areas, and even expel foreign extremists from the area, as well as stopping Taliban cross-border raids. It has surely eased his woes, but it's pure bad news on the anti-terror front.

Musharraf has been helpful in fighting al Qaeda, killing or capturing nearly 700 since 9/11 - and turning some 350 over to the United States for interrogation. But the Bush administration must still pressure him - as strongly as possible - on the Taliban problem. Yet, at least for now, America has little choice but to live with Musharraf's truce.

How did we get here?

The U.S.-led post-9/11 campaign flushed the vast majority of Taliban and al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. Many, possibly including Osama bin Laden, found new sanctuary in the rugged, chaotic area along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Naturally, we then looked to Musharraf to act against these terrorist/extremists in his country.

He's had success against al Qaeda, but Islamabad's strategy for getting tough with the Taliban and its supporters in the tribal areas has cost the army 500 soldiers in a 30-month offensive - and lots of domestic political grief.

It's tough job. The border region is an area that neither Afghanistan's nor Pakistan's government has ever had much luck controlling: The mountainous terrain makes it near-impossible to crack down - and the inhabitants (pretty much the same tribes on either side of the border) are fiercely independent.

To that, add Musharraf's dicey political situation. His nation's large religious parties paint any use of force in the area as waging war on Pakistanis. And he must reckon with other sectors of the population that are sympathetic to the Taliban - or unfriendly to the United States.

He's also being squeezed by the highly-influential Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) to ease off the Taliban. The ISI played a key role in creating the fundamentalist Taliban to start with - and may still be a big supporter. (Among other things, the ISI saw the Taliban as the best way for Pakistan to influence its Afghan neighbor.)

Then, too, the army is unhappy over the casualties. And the military is one political power Musharraf just can't ignore. After all, he was General Musharraf until he took power in a 1999 coup.

Oh, and toss in his personal antipathy for Afghan President Hamid Karzai - a dislike that seems pretty mutual.

Since he couldn't control the area anyway, Musharraf apparently decided the "peace pact" was his best bet.

Yet rumors say that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar blessed the truce. That's believable: Why complain about a deal that leaves the light on and the welcome mat out for your boys? Roughed up by recent U.S.-Afghan-NATO military operations (which have killed hundreds), Taliban fighters can head for Pakistan to rest and regroup over the harsh winter, before coming back in a spring offensive.

It's a perfect safe haven - Pakistan's government won't go in, and the U.S., NATO and Afghan military forces across the border can't do so, either - it's politically off-limits.

Musharraf's government won't admit there's a problem. It claims that the 300 percent spike in attacks is the work of home-grown Afghan Taliban - and that the tribal leaders will honor the agreement to stop cross-border militant traffic.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan doesn't buy it. They say that the absence of the Pakistani army in the tribal areas is allowing the Taliban to use the region to stage attacks into Afghanistan.

So why do we have to live with it? Basically, because the alternatives are worse. If we pressure Musharraf too hard, it could mean losing Pakistan altogether - even as an imperfect ally-in the terrorism fight. Hence the warm White House embrace of Musharraf during his visit to Washington last week.

The Bush administration's doing what can be done to shore up Pakistan's control over its Afghan border: helping equip the paramilitary Frontier Corps; funding more than 100 new border outposts; providing high-tech equipment and aircraft/helicopters for surveillance.

Even bringing together Musharraf and Karzai for some much-needed "relationship counseling" at a White House dinner the last week might bring some positive results - perhaps better communication, cooperation and consultation on regional security.

Pakistan 's truce stinks, but we're just going to have to hold our nose for the moment, while we try to persuade Musharraf to change course.

He's no perfect partner, but he's been an ally against terrorism nonetheless. Fact is, in war, sometimes the only bad ally is the ally you don't have.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The New York Post