A Widening War - Next Stop Baluchistan
by Charles Lemos, Tue Mar 17, 2009 at 05:42:57 PM EDT
The New York Times is reporting that the Obama Administration is considering expanding the US-led covert war in Pakistan far to strike at a different center of Taliban power in Baluchistan, the largest territorially and historically the most restive of Pakistan's provinces. The Baluchistan region is one of the most rugged and remote lands in the world.
Baluchistan and neighboring Pashtunistan have long complicated Afghanistan's relations with Pakistan. Controversies involving these areas date back to the establishment of the Durand Line in 1893 dividing Pashtun and Baluch tribes living in Afghanistan from those living in what later became Pakistan. Baluchistan also stretches into Iran and the region has had an active insurgency for over 60 years led by three groups, the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the Baluchistan Liberation Front, and the People's Liberation Army. The region while remote boasts 40% of Pakistan's natural gas reserves.
While the Durand Line is the formal frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in reality the line does not exist to the people who live there. Quetta, the provincial capital, has experienced serious ethnic violence that has led to gun battles in the streets leading to curfews and martial law. Quetta is also home to most of the Taliban leadership in exile including the blind cleric Mullah Muhammad Omar, who led the Taliban government that was ousted in the American-led invasion in 2001 and the city remains outside the effective control of the Pakistani military.
From the New York Times story:
According to senior administration officials, two of the high-level reports on Pakistan and Afghanistan that have been forwarded to the White House in recent weeks have called for broadening the target area to reach the Taliban and other insurgent groups to a major sanctuary in and around the city of Quetta.
Mullah Muhammad Omar, who led the Taliban government that was ousted in the American-led invasion in 2001, has operated with near impunity out of the region for years, along with many of his deputies.
The extensive missile strikes being carried out by Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones have until now been limited to the tribal areas, and have never been extended into Baluchistan, a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government, and which abuts the parts of southern Afghanistan where recent fighting has been the fiercest. There remains fear within the American government that extending the raids would worsen tensions. Pakistan complains that the strikes violate its sovereignty.
But some American officials say the missile strikes in the tribal areas have forced some leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to flee south toward Quetta, making them more vulnerable. In separate reports, groups led by both Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in the region, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, a top White House official on Afghanistan, have recommended expanding American operations outside the tribal areas if Pakistan cannot root out the strengthening insurgency.
Many of Mr. Obama's advisers are also urging him to sustain orders issued last summer by President George W. Bush to continue Predator drone attacks against a wider range of targets in the tribal areas, and to conduct cross-border ground actions, using C.I.A. and Special Operations commandos. Mr. Bush's orders also named as targets a wide variety of insurgents seeking to topple Pakistan's government. Mr. Obama has said little in public about how broadly he wants to pursue those groups.
It is a matter of concern that while most progressives seemingly focus on exiting Afghanistan (I don't dispute that is ultimately a goal worth having), I believe that we are missing the bigger picture - we are increasingly being drawn into the implosion of the Pakistani state. This weekend's political brinkmanship between President Zardari and opposition leader Sharif Nawaz may have ended peacefully. On Monday, the Zardari government backed down and recognized the mood of the people, as an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari put it. Even so that mood of the Pakistani mob played out, sometimes violently, on Pakistan's streets over the weekend and forced Zardari's government to reinstate the country's former chief justice -- a popular, independent jurist who was dismissed two years ago by General Mushraff.
The US State Department said today that the decision by the Pakistani government had brought the country back from the brink. Perhaps that's true but it would be wrong to conclude that Pakistan is more than mere inches from driving itself over a cliff at any moment.
More from the New York Times:
It was a signal moment in Pakistan's political development: A huge demonstration forced the restoration of a dismissed chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, a symbol of democracy and the rule of law. The army did not stage a coup, but insisted that the government accept a compromise.
The deal between President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, does not herald a solution to the instability of this nuclear-armed nation. Nor does it ensure the Obama administration's primary objective of tamping down the powerful Islamic insurgency that threatens both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
How the two Pakistani politicians will resolve their rivalry is but one of many uncertainties. Another is whether the domestic political struggle will allow them -- or the military -- to focus on their country's deteriorating security situation.
President Zardari has been severely weakened by his efforts to squelch a national protest and faces defections from the usually cohesive Pakistan Peoples Party. His opponent, Mr. Sharif, emerged as a leader in waiting, but with no clear path to power.
The way ahead is likely to be messy for everyone, including the United States, and could turn out to be a major distraction from efforts to counter the insurgency, which is spreading closer to the main population areas.
Still the overall conclusion is that Pakistan remains embroiled in internecine turf wars. Zardari is a Sindhi and Sharif a Punjabi and the tension between those two regions remains the underlying history of a country that has failed to transform itself into a nation. And now we find ourselves embroiling ourselves further in the internal politics of a failed state.
No doubt, we are paying the cost of strategic distraction. The Bush Administration took control of Afghanistan quickly but failed to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Its pivot on its so-called 'war of terror' in a matter of months went from Afghanistan to its Iraqi obsession. The Al Qaeda and Taliban problem was simply swept under the Durand Line carpet in neighboring Baluchistan and the Tribal Areas, areas where the Pakistani state was historically weak to start. Now according to the New York Times, the policy choices are stark.
As part of the same set of decisions, according to senior civilian and military officials familiar with the internal White House debate, Mr. Obama will have to choose from among a range of options for future American commitments to Afghanistan.
His core decision may be whether to scale back American ambitions there and simply assure that it does not become a sanctuary for terrorist groups. "We are taking this back to a fundamental question," a senior diplomat involved in the discussions said. "Can you ever get a central government in Afghanistan to a point where it can exercise control over the country? That was the problem Bush never really confronted."
A second option, officials say, is to significantly boost the American commitment to train Afghan troops, with Americans taking on the Taliban with increasing help from the Afghan military. President Bush pursued versions of that strategy, but the training always took longer and proved less successful than plans called for.
A third option would involve devoting full American and NATO resources to a large-scale counterinsurgency effort. But Mr. Obama would be bound to face considerable opposition within NATO, whose leaders he will meet with early next month in Strasbourg, France. At the very time the United States is seeking to expand its presence in Afghanistan, many of the allies are scheduled to leave.
As for American strikes on militant havens inside Pakistan, administration officials say the Predator and Reaper attacks in the tribal areas have been effective at killing 9 of Al Qaeda's top 20 leaders, and the aerial campaign was recently expanded to focus on the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as his fighters and training camps. Many American intelligence officials say that several of the top Taliban commanders remain in hiding either in the sprawling Afghan refugee camps near Quetta or in some of the city's Afghan neighborhoods.
Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.
I am struck by this question "Can you ever get a central government in Afghanistan to a point where it can exercise control over the country?" The same applies to Pakistan and failure in Pakistan carries far greater costs than failure in Afghanistan.