If America strikes in Pakistan…


What would military action by US forces mean for General Musharraf? It would imply that Washington has finally written him off and is no longer interested in assisting him to stay in power
Recently a barrage of bad news focusing on Pakistan has been coming from Washington DC. The first such was the National Intelligence Estimate telling US policymakers and the world that the tribal regions of Pakistan are hosting Al Qaeda leaders. They have regrouped in these areas and are planning terrorist activities against Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.
This is not the first time that US spymasters in search of the elusive Al Qaeda have turned their attention to our tribal belt bordering on Afghanistan. It is generally assumed that this difficult mountain terrain, which supposedly has a supportive population and is not directly and effectively controlled by the federal or provincial governments, is the mostly likely refuge for Al Qaeda leaders. The presence of a good number of Arabs, Chechens and other foreign fighters, Afghan-Soviet war veterans who have lived in and found the region favourable to their strategic objectives, confirms this suspicion. As a corollary, the United States is seriously considering unilateral military action against Al Qaeda and Taliban in the tribal regions.
As if that were not enough for the weak and increasingly beleaguered Musharraf regime, more bad news has followed. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation that would require the president of the United States to certify that Pakistan is effectively fighting terrorists in its western borderlands, making progress on democracy and rule of law through free and fair elections and preventing proliferation of nuclear and missile technology. Without this certification, Pakistan would be allowed no US aid.
Ranked in order of risk and serious security and political implications for the country and the region, the American threat to go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda inside Pakistani territories would be on top.
What type or types of military action can US forces possibly undertake and to what effect? Launching air strikes or missile attacks by bombers or predator drones is the most practical option. US forces operating across the border in Afghanistan have targeted suspected hideouts of militants, including religious schools and houses, on several occasions in the past, apparently without any authorisation or even prior knowledge of the Government of Pakistan. If this happens again, we should not be surprised.
What might be different this time is a changing outlook on the Musharraf regime and a declared policy of attacking Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda positions across the Durand Line in Pakistan. This may increase the frequency and lethality of attacks, with the attendant risk of collateral damage to the civilian population in one of the most poor and underdeveloped regions of Pakistan.
In the past many commentators have dismissed American threats of military action inside Pakistan as merely a pressure tactic to force the authorities do more in the war on terror. This time around, I believe, there is a change in perception in the United States about whether the Musharraf regime has the will, capacity and popular support to execute the war on terror in good faith. It began to form with the Waziristan peace agreement that Pakistan signed with the militants and tribes in September last year.
The Americans have been very critical of peace negotiations, on the grounds that the peace deal left the region to the control of the militants and that it failed to deliver on the promises made. The locals continued to shelter foreigners and the militants did not stop crossing over into Afghanistan. Many people in Pakistan also interpreted the deal as a sign of defeat and weakness for Pakistani forces, who talked peace only after suffering heavy casualties.
Peace with the tribes was further strained when the Taliban in the tribal regions began asserting their power and setting themselves up as warlords governing independently of the authority of the Pakistani state. They began to increase the jurisdiction of their undeclared religious kingdom beyond the tribal areas into the settled districts of the Frontier province. In the wake of the military operation in the Red Mosque, tribal militants, to show solidarity with the slain cleric, have pronounced the Waziristan accord dead. A spate of suicide bombings in the capital and other places and rocket attacks in the settled districts has followed this announcement.
America’s indictment of Pakistan’s failure in the tribal areas and its threat of military action could not come at a worse time. Musharraf finds himself in big trouble today. He is isolated; PMLQ, the party he put together, is withering away, and the opposition, energised by the Supreme Court decision restoring the chief justice of Pakistan, is becoming more clamorous. His move to seek alignment with Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the PPP, whom he called corrupt and vowed never to allow in office or even in Pakistan, speaks volumes about his vulnerability.
What would military action by US forces mean for General Musharraf? It would imply that Washington has finally written him off and is no longer interested in assisting him in any way to stay in power. It might indicate that the US doubts his commitment and capacity to fight the militants effectively. By showing that the US does not really care about political stability in the country, it would mark a major shift in its policy towards Pakistan. One of the immediate consequences of American actions would be massive political unrest in the Pushtun regions of the country and in major Pakistani towns where religious political parties have considerable street power.
This would be utterly counterproductive to the US strategic goal of helping Pakistan reform itself as a democratic and moderate state. American bombs raining down in the tribal belt at a time when Pakistan’s political parties are preparing for the next general election will not help the liberal and moderate forces that the US wants to win. Its intervention in Afghanistan in 2002 greatly contributed to the electoral victory of the religious parties, who exploited anti-American sentiment in their own favour. Religious parties seem to be losing support among their constituents; they would gain it again if the Americans carry out their threat to attack Pakistani territories.
I hope the American threats are just threats, and no more. But I am not sure about the Americans’ sagacity, their understanding of complex societies like Afghanistan and Waziristan and the capacity of dominant intellectual elites and power groups in the US today to explore alternatives to military force. It is apparent from many misadventures that the US has not learnt any lessons from its costly failures.
The situation along the border with Afghanistan can be improved by peace, development and by helping Pakistan expand and exercise its writ, not by extending the deadly theatre of counterinsurgency operations to our western borderlands. American involvement will surely send the entire region and most of the country into turmoil.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.