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Risks Of Expanding Scope Of U.S. Strikes Within Pakistan Debated

  • Abubakar Siddique

A Pakistani soldier stands guard in a bunker in Quetta. Is the city the next front in the war on the Taliban?

A Pakistani soldier stands guard in a bunker in Quetta. Is the city the next front in the war on the Taliban?

Surrounded by dry mountains, the dusty city of Quetta houses more than 1 million people and is the capital of Pakistan's largest but least-populated province, Baluchistan.

It is also a mere two-hour drive across the Khojak Pass to the volatile border regions of southern Afghanistan -- where in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul the Taliban insurgency is at its strongest.

Baluchistan Province and its proximity to the most restive Afghan regions has to this point escaped the type of scrutiny heaped on Pakistan's tribal areas to the north, where the United States has for the past year been conducting drone attacks targeting Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters hiding there.

But that may be about to change, and residents of Quetta and areas of Baluchistan along the Afghan border are nervous. Aurangzeb Kasi is a leader of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party in Quetta. He is opposed to U.S. strikes in his home region, but says that Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants should not bring their wars to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"This is a war between Al-Qaeda and the U.S. and the Afghans should not be destroyed in this," he tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

With U.S. President Barack Obama just days away from unveiling the new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, his administration's strategists and military commanders are hard-pressed to put new options on the table to defeat the Taliban -- or at least weaken them considerably enough to negotiate with them from a position of strength.

According to "The New York Times" this week, recommendations given to the White House by General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, and Lieutenant General Douglas Lute call for expanding U.S. operations outside Pakistan's tribal districts if Islamabad cannot contain the Taliban.

Getting Involved In Pakistan

These recommendations are said to focus on Quetta, where the U.S. officials reportedly believe Taliban leaders are hiding in the city's numerous neighborhoods where Afghan refugees live side by side with locals. Numerous Afghan refugee camps also dot the city's surroundings.

During a Pentagon press briefing on March 18, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed Washington's concerns in Baluchistan and its capital.

"I think we all have a concern about the Quetta Shura [Taliban leadership council] and the activities of the Taliban in that area," he said. "But I think this is principally a problem and a challenge for the Pakistanis to take on. And as we have indicated we are prepared to do anything to help them do that."

Although Pakistani forces have arrested a few Taliban commanders in Quetta in recent years, Islamabad's official view is that there are no Taliban or Al-Qaeda leaders there, and that no attacks are being orchestrated from Baluchistan.

The possibility of seeing the expansion of strikes to its territory is being met with great anxiety in Pakistan. "By building their troop strength [in Afghanistan] and showing some sort of resolve on their part, and expanding their war zone into Pakistan, they [the U.S. military] feel that they [the Taliban] will be hurt to an extent that they might come to the negotiating table. But it's a big question mark," says Talat Masood, a former Pakistani military general who is now one of the country's top strategic analysts.

Masood suggests that U.S. officials needs to ask themselves "to what extent the Americans can involve themselves in operations in Pakistan."

Masood is clearly opposed to the idea. "It is very alarming in the sense that the American involvement in Pakistan -- military involvement -- not only in terms of the drone attacks but also [because], I think, most probably it will be followed up by some boots-on-the-ground sort of a situation expanding in Baluchistan," he says.

Regional Consensus

He acknowledges that some Taliban leaders do "at times reside in Baluchistan. And these people are living among the population and, if at all these drone attacks [are to] take place there will be very heavy casualties of civilians. Anguish of the people of Pakistan would increase. And on balance, I think, America will continue to lose."

U.S. counterinsurgency experts, however, maintain that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan cannot succeed without addressing the issue of cross-border insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Although most Islamist militant groups operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, their "notable command and control node" is located inside Pakistan, says Seth Jones, a security expert at Rand Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank that has conducted Pentagon-funded studies on the Afghan insurgency.

Jones suggests that without addressing this regional aspect and building a consensus among Afghanistan's neighbors, it will be difficult to achieve Afghan stability. "What we have now is that there is no consensus among the neighbors. And we know over the last several decades that how Afghanistan's neighbors act fundamentally impacts the Afghan state. We saw this in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and we see it today," he says.

"The U.S. has clearly, increasingly, understood this challenge. I don't think people have got their hands on the best solution yet to fix it though."

Jones suggested that the decentralized and fragmented nature of the insurgency in Afghanistan makes it hard to copy the Iraq model of co-opting elements of the insurgency, or to emphasize any one tactic as a sure way to success.

Taliban Not Invincible

The key to the reviews conducted, he says, is for the United States to piece together an all-encompassing strategy that will convince people in the region that the Taliban can be defeated. "The experience in 2001, this may not be a good model, was to begin to pull apart parts of that Taliban support network. That some tribes, for example, would turn against the Taliban, a range of other local networks would [also] turn against the Taliban," he says.

"What people needed to see, though, was that the Taliban was losing," Jones adds. "So when some of the northern cities fell -- like Mazar for example, Mazar-e Sharif fell [to U.S. backed anti-Taliban forces] in 2001 -- there was a signal sent across Afghanistan that the Taliban were not invincible."

However, the talk of a new strategy also comes as the Afghan government and people appear to be tiring of the war in their country, leading to talk of negotiating with the Taliban rather than fighting them.

Gul Agha Sherzai, the powerful governor of Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province, is already planning to hold a large meeting attended by Pashtun tribal leaders and clerics from Afghanistan and Pakistan -- his idea being that they can entice Taliban members or other extremists into joining a peace process.

"We have no other option but to bring peace, so that we stop the killing of brothers by the hands of brothers. In particular, we want to put an end to the bloodshed of the Pashtuns," Sherzai tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

In Islamabad, analyst Masood suggests that the Obama strategy consider absorbing the Taliban into mainstream politics in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. "They should be drawn into the election process if possible. That may sound somewhat idealistic but this is the only way, because how long can they can continue to impose their will on the people of Afghanistan, or for that matter the tribal belt in [Pakistan]," he says.

"If they are their representatives, then they must get a free choice of forming a government, or being in the opposition or being part of the political process."

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