Now that the key supply route for NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan is re-opened, the government of Pakistan and NATO authorities in Afghanistan need to increase their coordination so that untoward instances such as the September 30 attack by NATO helicopters on a Pakistani security post on the Pak-Afghan border should not recur, nor should the consequent disruption in the NATO supply line through Pakistan.
After all, Pakistan and NATO are together waging a war against Al-Qaeda and its hardcore allies in the region. And victory in this war will be difficult if NATO forces in Afghanistan violate Pakistani airspace, launch helicopter attacks on its territory, especially ones in which its very soldiers who are guarding the Pak-Afghan border are killed. Of course, this war will also be difficult to win if a section of the Pakistani tribal territory continues to be used by Taliban-led militants as a staging post for their growing insurgent campaign in Afghanistan.
The latest standoff between Pakistan and NATO, which led to the destruction of scores of NATO vehicles, some 60 on October 4 alone and the disruption in NATO supplies for over a week, was over after formal apology from the US government and expression of “regret” for the death of Pakistan soldiers by the NATO Secretary General. Earlier, a joint investigation by the Pakistan military and the International Security Assistance Force had found that on September 30 “two U.S. helicopters mistook the frontier scouts for Taliban insurgents that the U.S. forces had been pursuing and fired on them along a rugged, mountainous stretch of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
An apology for the incident was issued by the outgoing US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W Patterson, in a statement October 6. “We extend our deepest apology to Pakistan and the families of the frontier scouts who were killed and injured. Pakistan’s brave security forces are our allies in a war that threatens both Pakistan and the United States,” she said. Before that, General David Petraeus, the commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also personally called Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani to regret the tragic incident.
This was not the first time that the NATO’s supply route through Pakistan was disrupted. Previously as well, Taliban have consistently attacked its trucks and containers, hundreds of which are plying on Pakistani roads from Karachi to the Chaman border crossing point in Balochistan and the Torkham border crossing point in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa at a given time. The difference this time was the gravity of Taliban assaults on these vehicles. The disrupters simply took advantage of the serious rift between the government of Pakistan and NATO authorities in Afghanistan after the September 30th incident. Given that, the two sides must ensure in future that such rifts do not arise at all between them in future.
The Tripartite Commission is the main institutional body that brings Pakistan, Afghanistan and US/NATO together for the required coordination in information and intelligence sharing so that unwarranted traffic of militants across the Pak-Afghan border can be monitored effectively and pre-emptive and preventing steps can be taken to check it. It is by optimally utilizing this forum that greater security can be ensured on this border. Whatever steps needed for the purposes, whether it is to set up more security posts on both sides of the border or fence some of its most troublesome sections such as the North Waziristan part, must be undertaken urgently.
For its part, Pakistan has to ensure that its tribal territory is not used by Afghan insurgents. Counter-insurgency operations elsewhere in the tribal regions and the extensive rescue and relief effort for managing the flood disaster, besides the lingering security threat from India, may have dissuaded the Pakistani army from opening the North Waziristan front. However, the presence of Afghan insurgent safe havens in the area is, indeed, a major issue, which Pakistan will have to sort out in time. In fact, the sooner it does, the better it will be for the country’s security and sovereignty, which the US drones consistently violate.
One way out for managing the security along the Pak-Afghan border is to recognize it as an international frontier, disregarding Afghan government’s reservations in this regard. This will make both Pakistan and Afghanistan more responsible in guarding their frontier. Neither the post-Taliban authorities in Kabul, nor Pashtun nationalists currently ruling the Khyber-Pakhtunkkhwa should be interested in the issue of Greater Pashtunistan. This is because of the decades-long wave of Talibanization in Pashtun dominated areas along the Pak-Afghan border, which the rulers on both sides are attempting to reverse.
International recognition of the Pak-Afghan border and the consequent steps to secure it against the forces of insurgency can be a stopgap arrangement. Once the insurgency is over, and peace returns in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, then options such as “open borders” can be explored to ensure intra-Pahtun traffic and contact that has been the norm in this region for centuries.
Finally, all the principal international stakeholders in Afghanistan—the Afghan government, in the first place, the US and NATO as its main international protector, the United Nations on behalf of the entire international community, and Pakistan, for sharing the unique historical, geographical and ethnic bond with Afghanistan—must be open and honest about the reconciliation process, if any, under way to politically resolve the current Afghan conflict.
There is considerable confusion about it. Only recently, a 68-member Peace Council was set up to accelerate informal talks under way between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Taliban-led insurgents, a process that is openly endorsed by the UN, and conditionally. If at all this process is under way, what is its nature? What progress has it achieved so far? Has the Haqqani network, which allegedly uses North Waziristan for insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, been covertly co-opted for the purpose? If this is so, then how can opening the North Waziristan front can be publicly articulated as an emergent option, which Pakistan is reluctant to exercise?
The point to understand here is that all those struggling to make Afghanistan and the region peaceful once again after defeating the forces of extremism and terrorism must be transparent in their approaches, whether they pertain to waging war through military means or resolving the conflict through diplomatic tools. There has to be utter clarity in this regard. Otherwise, there will always be mistrust among supposed allies in the international campaign against terrorism in the region.
As for Pakistan’s significance in Afghan conflict resolution, let me conclude this article with the words of former US ambassador to Pakistan, Rayan Crocker, who has written an excellent article in the October 12 edition of The Wall Street Journal titled “Pakistan is Not America’s Enemy”, October 12). He writes, “Any talks between the U.S. or Afghanistan and the Taliban must be transparent to the Pakistanis. If Pakistan is not part of the process, we will be working at cross-purposes and only the Taliban will benefit…Going forward, the timing and nature of talks with the Taliban should be set by Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans working together…None of this will be easy, but it is essential. A sustained U.S.-Pakistani partnership after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan could have produced a very different history than the one we wrestle with today. Writing a different future requires making long-term commitments—on both sides of the Durand Line.”