Three days before Pakistan elected its 14th president, on Sep 3, at 3 a.m., two CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters landed in the village of Zawlolai in South Waziristan with ground troops from the US Special Forces. The troops fired at three houses and killed over 17, including five women and four sleeping children.
This was the second known ground attack by the US forces in Pakistan. In 2006, US heli-borne troops had landed in the border village of Saidgi in North Waziristan. But this was a far more bigger and intense attack. Besides the two helicopters carrying the Special Forces commandos, two jet fighters and two gun-ship helicopters provided the air cover for the half-hour operation, more than a kilometer inside the Pakistan border.
The Sep 3 attack, and the subsequent missile attacks, raise several issues and questions that would have serious implications for Pakistan, the region as well as the world.
First, it is an attack carried out in a sovereign state without its permission, and is an indication of US intentions in the region.
Second, the attack betrays a sense of desperation in the US (Bush) administration and a misplaced reliance on military offensive to cover up a colossal strategic failure in stemming the tide of terrorism in Pakistan's tribal areas which has been visible since early 2002. The US could have utilized its hold over the Musharraf government in 2002-07 to counter the growth of the Al Qaeda-Taliban network in the tribal areas. In fact, the strategy which the US seems to be adopting in the present round of attacks - targeting the terror leadership - could have been easily achieved during Pervez Musharraf's time, much before 2007, since he was chief of the army staff (COAS) and president, and had absolute control over the civilian government.
Third, the killing of civilians, especially women and children, would certainly raise the anti-American feeling within Pakistan, not long a strategic ally in the war on terror, particularly within its armed forces and intelligence agencies without whose help the US-led war on terror would remain crippled. Pakistan Army chief Pervez Kayani's uncharacteristic outburst against the US attack reflected the growing dissent within the top hierarchy of the military against the US and its desperate military actions in the recent past. In 2007, when US Predators had attacked a seminary in Bajaur, Musharraf was hard pressed to placate his Corps commanders who were quite unhappy with the attack.
The unilateral action would certainly jeopardize the US-Pakistan cooperation in countering terrorist groups in the tribal areas.
Fourth, the attack, protested strongly by the villagers first who blocked the Wana-Angoor Adda road for five hours, would only strengthen the extremist and terrorist groups in the area and their anti-US agenda. The 2007 attack on a Bajaur seminary, which killed over 80 people, most of them young students, had helped the terrorist groups to enlist more recruits to their cause. The South Waziristan attack would not only help the terrorist groups consolidate their hold over the areas they already occupy but, by exploiting the strong anti-US feeling, also expand their support base in the settled areas.
Fifth, and perhaps the most critical, is the impact it would have on the life and tenure of General Kayani and the new President, Asif Ali Zardari, both widely seen as pro-US. If such attacks were to continue, Kayani would come under pressure to take a divergent stand on his army's alliance with the US counter-terrorism strategy or else face a forced resignation or a possible coup. Zardari certainly has far bigger trouble on his hand with the US belligerence heralding his election as president. Zardari's hold over his party and the country is at best tenuous and the US attacks, either by the ground troops or missiles shot from Predators (12 drone attacks in 2008 as compared to three in 2007), is certain to undo his toehold in Islamabad.
The sixth fall-out is what follows naturally from weakening the position of the new president, who also happens to be the head of a relatively liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the new army chief who had, till now, agreed to go along with the Americans in going after the `bad guys`. A weak president and a defensive army chief are not the signs of stability.
Seventh, and perhaps the least understood, is the impact such attacks would have on the Pashtun sentiments. The Pashtun-Punjabi divide may not be as deep as the Punjabi-Baloch schism, but the military operations in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas in the past seven years have caused visible rifts in the ethnic fabric of the area. The rift became apparent during the security operations in 2006 and 2007 when a larger number of Frontier Corps men, all Pashtuns, either refused to fight or surrendered. The mutinous reaction within the paramilitary force had a fallout in the army too where at least 15-20 percent of the men, and officers, are Pashtuns. The American attacks on Pashtuns and the military offensive in tribal areas, particularly Bajaur and Swat, have driven about 400,000 Pashtuns to migrate to safer areas in the North West Frontier Province and Punjab. This could translate into an expanding arc of anti-American (perhaps anti-army) sentiment in Pakistan.
(Wilson John is a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)