Shifting Alliances Complicate U.S.-Pakistan War Against Militants

Shifting Alliances Complicate U.S.-Pakistan War Against Militants

The Obama Administration may be pressing Pakistan to intensify its efforts against Islamic militants on its soil, but Islamabad has its own ways of tackling the issue — most recently in the form of truces with local Taliban forces, a development that has raised eyebrows in Washington. Pity the intelligence analyst tasked with interpreting the rapidly changing political landscape of Pakistan’s wild North-West and tribal areas over the past week.

First, the Taliban in the Swat Valley announced an indefinite cease-fire, but only after the army had agreed to halt its counterinsurgency operations and the government caved in to the militants’ demand for the imposition of Islamic law. Then it emerged that the Taliban and the army would both be observing a four-day truce in Bajaur, the tribal area along the Afghan border that has seen the fiercest fighting in Pakistan’s domestic campaign against extremists. And on a more ominous note, last weekend at an undisclosed location deep in Waziristan’s mountains, Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud forged a new alliance with two rival commanders who had been fighting him with backing by the government.

The recent events have caused concern among Pakistan’s Western allies, who hope to see a tougher government crackdown on militancy — and, at least in Swat, have emboldened the militants, who believe they have prevailed over the government’s effort to militarily dislodge them.

Pakistan’s domestic militants have faced a four-pronged assault since last summer, with counterinsurgency campaigns by Pakistani troops in Swat, Bajaur and the town of Dara Adam Khel — home to a notorious militant arms industry — along with stepped-up CIA-directed missile strikes from pilotless drone aircraft. The seriousness of the Pakistani effort was underlined by the scores of casualties suffered by the military, particularly in Bajaur. The military believes it has the Taliban on the ropes in Bajaur and says the truce there is simply to give Taliban members an opportunity to surrender their weapons. The cease-fire in Swat, however, comes at a moment when four-fifths of the area is under the control of the forces of local jihadist Maulana Fazlullah, which have yet to lay down their weapons. Indeed, when the new government administrator took his post in the area on Sunday, he was kidnapped by local Taliban forces and held hostage to secure the release of a handful of their imprisoned comrades. Military officials say the level of civilian casualties in the fighting there made a truce preferable to the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign that had alienated much of the local population.

The Pakistan cease-fires are cause for concern in the Obama Administration, not least because they apply only to Taliban actions against the Pakistani state. In declaring its cease-fire, the Bajaur-based Taliban said it had been mistaken in targeting the Pakistani army and promised instead to concentrate its fire on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.

While the U.S. seeks to eliminate the sanctuaries inside Pakistan from which militants operate in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s priority has been to restore its own security. And Islamabad’s domestic-pacification effort has not been helped by U.S. tactics, particularly the militant-targeted missile strikes from pilotless drones, which have inflicted civilian casualties and fanned local anger. Amid last year’s fighting in Bajaur, the Pakistani army protested a flurry of drone strikes against the compounds of veteran militant leader Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan, arguing that such actions would open up another front at a time when Pakistan’s resources were already stretched.
In truth, Islamabad’s protests may camouflage a tacit backing of the drone attacks, of which there have been more than 30 since August. Pakistan’s governments have ritually condemned the attacks as “counterproductive,” going as far as to summon the U.S. ambassador on one occasion. However, after Senator Dianne Feinstein inadvertently revealed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the drones operate from a base inside Pakistan, it has emerged that the attacks carry Islamabad’s silent imprimatur.

In interviews with TIME, a former Cabinet minister in the government of President Pervez Musharraf and a current senior government official have confirmed that the previous government agreed to allow the CIA to target militants operating on Pakistani soil. Both sources refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the information. “Musharraf gave them the base in Shamsi [in a remote part of Baluchistan] to use for drones, logistics, everything,” says the current government official, who insists that the air strikes are “counterproductive” because they inflame public opinion against Islamabad’s alliance with Washington. “We have inherited all these problems from the previous government. There is an opinion in Pakistan that says that the Americans are doing our job for us [by targeting the militants]. But the drone attacks constitute an infringement of our sovereignty.”

The complex web of alliances is also illustrated by the U.S.’s use of drones to target two groups of militants, led by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadar, based in Waziristan. These men, from the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe, which straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, had formed an alliance with the Pakistani army against Mehsud and other militants. In fact, backed by the army, Nazir and his men had routed some 250 al-Qaeda-aligned Uzbek militants from Wana, in South Waziristan, in 2004. But despite their nonaggression pact with the Pakistani military, both men continued to mount cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO troops. The fact that they became targets of U.S. drone attacks prompted critics in Pakistan to suggest that the Musharraf government was double-dealing in some of its alliances in the tribal areas.

That’s certainly how Nazir and Bahadar see it. The two men and Mehsud, the militant commander against whom they fought on behalf of the Pakistani military,
have now formed an alliance with ambitions on both sides of the border. The Shura Ittehad Mujahedin, or Council of United Jihadists, has declared war on the governments of the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan and proclaimed its fealty to Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban. In this instance, the drone war may actually have strengthened one of the most intractable militants operating in Pakistan.

The government hopes its peace deal in Swat will drive a wedge between militants there and the stronger, more ambitious Mehsud — and, if successful, that it can be replicated on other fronts. But as is demonstrated by the shifting alliances in Waziristan, the basic problem facing the Pakistani government is that most of the population in the areas it’s trying to pacify, while not inherently opposed to the Pakistani state, nonetheless support the principle of fighting the Americans in Afghanistan.

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