By Hassan Abbas
Originally published in the Daily Star, December 4, 2009
The terrorist sanctuary in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan's tribal frontier with Afghanistan is coming apart. It took a while for the Pakistani Army to move against the region's rising violence and chaos, but its campaign in South Waziristan is making progress. The campaign's immediate impact is that it has shown the Pakistani state's determination to establish its authority in the area. But the window for the military to fill the power vacuum will be open only briefly. The terrorists have shown before that they can take a punch, strike back, and even rebuild their networks.
Indeed, even as the Pakistani Army launched operation Rah-e-Nijat (Path to Salvation) last October, a dozen devastating terrorist attacks in Pakistan's major cities demonstrated the reach of the South Waziristan militants. In a few instances, senior army and intelligence officers were targeted outside their homes in Islamabad, despite extensive security measures in and around the capital.
The October 11 attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi was the most daring of all—and sent shudders across the military command, because the terrorists knew the layout of the military and security buildings. But this inside knowledge also worked against the militants, because it demonstrated what was at stake for the country at large. No large street protests against the military operation in South Waziristan have been reported from anywhere in Pakistan.
But success in South Waziristan is only the starting point for dealing with the problem. Militant hubs are scattered throughout the sparsely populated tribal areas, including the North Waziristan, Orakzai, and Mohmand regions. Moreover, violent militancy has now spread into Pakistan proper. Southern Punjab is seeing a rapid growth in the number of religious fanatics, and rooting out the problem there is much more challenging than acting in the Pashtun tribal areas.
Many militants in Punjab worked closely with the Pakistani intelligence services for years, and their infrastructure is dispersed and hidden in various towns and villages. The army, which recruits heavily in the Punjab, will not use force there in the way it is doing in the tribal areas. Only a concerted law-enforcement effort, with the full support of the intelligence services, can succeed in the Pakistani heartland.
The deep security crisis in Pakistan is mirrored across the border in Afghanistan, which offers a model of what not to do. The Afghan Taliban, removed from power and routed from the country by the end of 2001, needed only a few years to revive themselves, owing to the failure of the Afghan government and its international backers to rebuild and stabilize the country.
A critical factor in the Taliban's revival was the haven that they found in the distant reaches of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the support that they continued to receive from elements within Pakistan. This time, as the Afghan Taliban are expelled from Pakistani territory, NATO and Afghan forces must be ready to take them on.
Observing the fighting in Pakistan, the United States, Afghanistan, and India expect the Pakistani Army to take on both the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani militants. But thousands of fighters are thought to be dispersed in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, with many of them focused on operations in Afghanistan. The cross-border movement of radicals suggests the importance of international cooperation.
Moreover, alliances among radical groups are constantly shifting, a reflection of tribal traditions and opportunism. Outsiders watching these shifts and the Pakistani government's handling of them have been unable to discern a consistent pattern that would explain Pakistani policy. But here, regional politics must be taken into account, especially the continuing rivalry between India and Pakistan.
At every stage of the lengthy conflict that has brought the US into the region, Pakistan has sought to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan. Indeed, India's growing influence and investment in Afghanistan is disturbing to Pakistan's national security apparatus. Ultimately, the dynamics of Afghan politics will determine Afghanistan's fate. But a collaborative Indian-Pakistani effort to stabilize the country could work wonders.
For both Pakistan and India, Afghanistan risks turning into a new disputed territory, like Kashmir, where conflict has damaged both countries for more than 60 years. In Afghanistan today both countries have an opportunity to reject that precedent and act on their mutual interest in stability.
Pakistan must be able to focus internally on its future. Financially insolvent and politically paralyzed, Pakistan needs international help to bring development to its liberated tribal areas and hope to the young people—65 percent of the population—who live there. For India, stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan would ease its rise to global economic power. Both countries should take advantage of the opportunity for cooperation provided by the Pakistani Army’s campaign against Waziristan’s militants.
Hassan Abbas is a senior adviser to the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The Daily Star publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).