Pakistan’s military encirclement of the country’s biggest concentration of Taliban guerrillas, which intensified this month, may fail to yield a decisive blow against the faction that is a primary target of the U.S.
Pakistan is seeking to preserve ties with the Taliban and other militants that it has used for decades to gain political influence in Afghanistan, according to Imtiaz Gul, director of Islamabad’s Center for Research and Security Studies.
The reliance on guerrillas to project power across Pakistan’s borders is part of an effort to compensate for its smaller size compared with arch-foe India, against which it has fought three wars since the countries separated at independence from the U.K.
Any army offensive “is not going to give satisfaction to the Americans, because Pakistan wants to keep a relationship with some of the groups there,” including the one led by Afghan tribal leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, said Gul.
The U.S., which is withdrawing some troops and planning to end its combat role in Afghanistan by 2014, is pushing Pakistan to crush the Taliban in its territory while helping bring its leaders to peace talks. The U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan describe Haqqani as a major enemy.
At army headquarters in Rawalpindi, spokesman Major General Athar Abbas described the armed forces’ constraints as he sat in his office near a wall of TV screens showing footage of the conflict on Pakistani channels.
“We have our own compulsions, and so we have our own time lines” for acting, he said. “Whatever we do, we will have to carry the people with us, and that slows the pace of any operation.”
The reluctance to assault North Waziristan is one of many U.S. complaints about the relationship. White House Chief of Staff William Daley on July 10 said the U.S. is suspending $800 million in military aid to Pakistan.
“They’ve taken some steps that have given us reason to pause,” Daley said on ABC’s “This Week” program.
Pakistan won’t be able to afford to keep troops at some security posts along the Afghan border after the U.S. decision to withhold assistance and may pull them back, the Express Tribune newspaper reported today, citing Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar. The minister was not immediately available for comment.
A U.S. aid cut would worsen Pakistan’s economic plight, in which growth has slowed to about 2.4 percent this fiscal year while annual inflation, at more than 13.1 percent in June, is Asia’s worst after Vietnam. Pakistan will need U.S. support within the International Monetary Fund if it is to end the organization’s year-long freeze on lending to the country, imposed last year over the government’s budget deficits.
Since U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, Pakistan’s 6.875 percent, 10-year dollar bond has fallen 7 percent, according to Bloomberg prices. The rupee, which traded at 85.95 to the dollar yesterday, has lost 1.6 percent, while the Karachi Stock Exchange 100 Index rose 2 percent during the same period, closing at 12,291.90 yesterday.
Since last week, thousands of Pakistani troops supported by artillery and helicopter gunships have taken Taliban-controlled areas in the Safed Koh mountains on the border with Afghanistan, Abbas said by phone July 7. In the past two years, the army has mounted offensives in six of the seven semi-autonomous tribal districts, where the Taliban established most of its armed strongholds.
The latest advance cuts a potential escape route from the remaining district, North Waziristan, where various Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked groups mount attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan as well as on Pakistan’s army and government.
While Pakistan denies secretly backing militant groups, many of them classified by the U.S., India and European governments as terrorist organizations, Pakistani analysts including Ahmed Rashid say they are used in disputes with neighbors.
For decades, the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate “have controlled the extremist groups, arming and training them in exchange for their continuing to serve as proxy forces in Afghanistan and Kashmir” in India, Rashid wrote in a March essay in the New York Review of Books.
Should the army strike in the district, “its main targets will be the groups that attack the Pakistani state,” said Gul, author of “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier,” published in 2010. He added that he was referring to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and some al-Qaeda affiliates, and not Haqqani.
Pakistan’s army, which has supported the Haqqani faction since the 1980s, still has a relationship with it, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said April 20.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month that while dealing with Pakistan was a “frustrating, frankly sometimes very outraging kind of experience,” American interests mean there’s no alternative.
Pakistan also needs to keep its ties to the U.S., said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani political scientist and fellow at the U.K.’s University of Oxford.
“If America and the free world were to leave Pakistan as it is now, the growth of extremism would continue unchecked and the liberal sections of our society would fizzle out,” he said.
In the 1980s, Pakistan armed Afghan guerrilla groups, including Haqqani’s, with CIA funds to combat the occupying Soviet army in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s army co-exists uneasily with militants in North Waziristan. Unidentified guerrillas July 6 killed four soldiers in a fight with one of the convoys that supply several thousand troops at border posts, said Rehman Shah, an official of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which include Waziristan.
American pressure for Pakistan to turn on the Haqqanis is less likely to succeed after the U.S. government confirmed last month it is holding preliminary talks with Taliban representatives for a peace deal in Afghanistan, Gul said.
“The Americans are trying to open avenues for negotiation with the Taliban, and at the same time, they want Pakistan to start a war with a Taliban group that would jeopardize Pakistan’s relations with a dangerous tribe along the border,” Gul said.
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