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Pakistan, Afghanistan, And Their 'Strategic Assets'

Afghan demonstrators shout anti-Pakistan slogans during a protest in Kabul on October 2.
Afghan demonstrators shout anti-Pakistan slogans during a protest in Kabul on October 2.
Pakistan's demand for action against Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, aka FM Mullah, is being seen as an effort to counter recent U.S. pressure for action by Islamabad against the Haqqani network, which is believed to have sanctuaries in the country's North Waziristan region and to be involved in cross-border attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The call came on October 17 from Pakistan's military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, in an interview in which he said the notorious cleric, suspected of ordering beatings and beheadings in the tourist resort of Swat, is now hiding in Afghanistan's Konar and Nuristan provinces and launching intermittent attacks in the Pakistani border areas.

Similar complaints have been lodged by NATO forces and the Afghan government about the Haqqanis and other Taliban groups, who they believe are enjoying safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas and crossing the border into Afghanistan to attack NATO and Afghan forces.

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has previously warned of action "if attacks continued in the Pakistani territory from the Afghan side," while Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani warned in a recent statement that "it is time for the U.S. to do more."

Statements from the two sides -- uneasy allies in a 10-year counterterror effort following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States -- signal an increasingly turbulent period despite sustained efforts to mend damaged ties and move forward with a joint strategy ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan slated for July 2014.

The Pakistani statements also point to that country's disappointment with militants it once dubbed "strategic assets" in efforts to move ahead with the controversial "strategic depth" policy, which was meant to keep a hold on every key foreign-policy development in Afghanistan in order to keep the country as a hedge in the case of another war with India.

Pakistani officials say militant leaders -- including Faqir Muhammad (Bajaur), Fazlullah (Swat), and Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid (Mohmand) -- have established bases in the Konar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan and are launching sporadic attacks on Pakistani security forces.

In the past few months, such statements from both sides have become practically routine, which can't help the counterterror effort. Instead, such differences are allowing the Taliban and their affiliates more time to readjust and strengthen their positions.

Critics of Pakistan's counterterror policy are still more than dubious that pro-Taliban leaders like Faqir Muhammad could launch attacks against the Pakistani security forces. Their skepticism is grounded in Pakistani statements suggesting that militant leaders like Faqir Muhammad, Fazlullah, Hakimullah Mehsud, and Omar Khalid were given a free hand in the tribal and settled districts over the years.

Indeed, each of those leaders has miraculously escaped the massive operations launched by the Pakistani Army from time to time in areas like Swat, Mohmand, Bajaur, and South Waziristan, casting some doubt on the state's sincerity in dealing with such militants.

However, a different perception is taking root among those supporting Pakistan's policy of strategic depth. They believe militant leaders such as Fazlullah, Maulvi Faqir, and Omar Khalid are now being given active support, or at least safe havens, by the Afghan government to exert pressure on Pakistan to take steps against the Haqqanis in the tribal areas.

The key question is: Are these two supposed allies in the "war on terror," who once joined hands to eliminate the scourge of terrorism from the region, now providing ammunition for those who would make trouble in the region and elsewhere?

If so, where do they stand after fighting for 10 long years and spending billions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of precious lives -- military and civilian -- to defeat Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates? What are the implications for the region if both sides are now banking on different sets of Taliban militants?

At a time when pressure is growing on the U.S. government for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, the fresh series of allegations and counterallegations is pointing to a new threat in the two neighbors' border zone.

Even a fleeting perception that the two sides are now supporting proxies to achieve their designs could prove disastrous for the region and the world, potentially leading to an end-game that's no more than a new Taliban state, only harsher and more brutal than the one seen in Afghanistan in the late 90s.

It is really time for these allies in the counterterror effort to understand that -- crucially -- support for militants, "good" or "bad," is in no one's interest, and the ultimate result could be a serious blow to regional peace and stability. It is time to win favor through fair play, instead of through proxies.

-- Daud Khattak