On the night of June 10, American air strikes took place on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Mohmand agency. It killed 27 people, of which 11 belonged to the Frontier Constabulary. While both sides agree that the air strike took place, there are different versions about the nature of the incident and the circumstances surrounding it.
Pakistan called it an unprovoked, cowardly act while the US Defence Department released videotapes to support its thesis that the air strikes were in defence of the US and coalition forces operating on the Afghan side of the border that came under hostile fire. US Defence Secretary Robert Gages has offered a joint investigation into the incident and has invited Pakistan and Afghanistan to participate in it. The operation involved one B-1 bomber and 2F-15-E fighter jets. That gives an idea what sophisticated equipment coalition forces in Afghanistan are prepared to use in their fight against the Taliban.
It is no secret that the Taliban has been using the Pakistani Frontier Tribal areas, which are inhabited by the same or kindred Pakhtun tribes as their sanctuaries to launch attacks on Afghan territory. The US had been pressing Pervez Musharraf to deploy the Pakistan Army and paramilitary forces in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region to drive away the Taliban. Though Musharraf deployed 80,000 troops and paramilitary forces they did not succeed in their mission. There were heavy casualties and a significant number were taken prisoners. The Pakistani forces, both the regular army and the paramilitary forces, have been trained to fight India and not counter insurgency operations. The tribal chieftains in the FATA prefer to continue the culture and politics of tribal traditions and are opposed to any modernisation or democratisation. They find the Taliban more congenial to continue their tribal culture than any attempt at modernisation or democratisation. They have therefore a natural affinity towards the Taliban and are opposed to the development undertaken by the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
After having suffered a large number of casualties and with 550 taken prisoner, the Pakistan Army has been negotiating localised peace agreements with various tribal chieftains. Under such agreements, Pakistan withdraws its army from the concerned tribal region, leaving the frontier constabulary in the areas. This constabulary consists of men who are locally recruited and officered by Pakistani Army officers. The tribal chieftains undertake not to allow any anti-Pakistan activity by people living in their areas. Often non-Pakhtuns who came as mujahideen during the Afghan War have settled in these areas -- such as Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechens. The tribal chieftains interpret the agreement to mean that their obligations do not extend to stopping the people in their areas crossing the Durand line (Pakistan-Afghan border) since on both sides there are kindred Pakhtun tribes. Therefore the Taliban is able to fight the US and coalition forces on Afghan territory and fall back on Pakistani tribal territory as sanctuary. The Taliban is also able to use the tribal areas for logistic support.
This situation was bad enough when Musharraf was in power. It has become worse after an elected democratic government took over in Islamabad. The Pakistani political parties feel that Musharraf was sustained in power through US support. In their view, the anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan is an American War in which they have very little stake. The Pakistan People's Party originally established the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1994 and Nawaz Sharif permitted the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine to flourish in Afghanistan in 1996-99.
In the last six years, Musharraf had perfected into a fine art the game of hunting with US hounds and running with the jehadi (Taliban) hares in the global war on terrorism with enormous benefits to Pakistani armed forces and Pakistani economy. The US military, intelligence and diplomatic establishments were helpless hostages of Musharraf as they were earlier of Saddam Hussein (1980-90), the Shah of Iran (1960-78), General Ayub Khan (1958-1968), Ngo Din Diem in South Vietnam (1959-63) and Chiang Kai Shek (1942-49). Their follies led to victories of communism in China and Vietnam, the rise of Ayatollahs in Iran, Saddam Hussein's dominance in Iraq, the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the present imbroglio in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.
The present air strike is likely to prove to be the beginning of US and NATO being compelled to use trans-border fire power on a regular basis to prevent the Taliban's cross-border operations since the Pakistani Army is incapable of stopping the Taliban and Pakistani political parties are not likely to display adequate political will to do it. The US needs to develop a strategy of containment vis-a-vis Pakistan to prevent its territory and its population (Taliban cadres) from being used to keep Afghanistan destabilised. At the same time the US and NATO will have to make up their mind for a long-term stay in Afghanistan, for adequate investment to train an Afghan National Army and to develop Afghanistan. It is also imperative for US and Western Europe not to succumb to the temptation of confronting Iran militarily and plunging the entire West Asia from Pakistan to the Mediterranean into violence and chaos.
The US has perhaps the best-equipped intelligence collection machinery in the world. Their problem is their inability to assess that intelligence in a balanced fashion and formulate policies on such sober assessments. The intelligence assessment is often corrupted by cronyism between the middle-level US establishment and the dictatorial establishments in the countries of concern or by ideological extremism like that of the neo-conservatives. The probability in this case is neither Pakistan nor the US is likely to change its ways.
In the coming months, it is likely there will be more such incidents on the Pakistan-Afghan border with adverse consequences on US-Pakistan relations. The degree of effectiveness of US pressure on Pakistan will also be dependent on Saudi financial support to Pakistan. Owing to high oil prices, Saudi Arabia is flush with money and the US has to control Saudis if it is to succeed in applying pressure on Pakistan.
In India we need to assess the consequences of US-Pakistan relations coming under increased tension and their impact on Pakistan-based and Pakistan-originating terrorist activities directed against India.
(K. Subrahmanyam is India's pre-eminent analyst on strategic and international affairs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)