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Pakistan's uneasy role in terror war

The Pakistan army and tribal leaders make peace after clashes that left over 100 dead, preventing wider a conflict in the volatile border area.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It was a cinematic moment, heavy with symbolism. In the courtyard of a village Islamic school, uniformed army officers greeted tribal fighters wearing enormous turbans and bandoliers. Rusty rifles and swords were ceremonially presented, and the former adversaries embraced.

But the April 24 meeting, which formally ended a bloody month-long conflict between Pakistani troops and Islamic militants in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, also signaled a setback for Pakistan's campaign to clear al Qaeda and Taliban operatives out of its border areas. And it underscored persistent contradictions between Pakistani and U.S. priorities despite the two governments' alliance against terrorism.

More than 21/2 years after the United States launched military operations in Afghanistan, U.S. officials continue to describe the threat from revived Taliban and al Qaeda forces there as an urgent and overriding concern. There are constant reports of armed attacks on military or civilian targets in several Afghan provinces along the Pakistani border, and extremist groups have vowed to intensify assaults before the Afghan national elections, which are scheduled for September.

A job half done
While U.S. and Afghan forces pursue their quarry on the Afghan side of the border, they rely on Pakistan to take on guerrillas who have found refuge on the other side. From Washington's perspective, Pakistan's aborted military mission in the tribal area of South Waziristan was a job half done.

A series of raids in March ended with more than 120 people dead but did not result in the capture or killing of any senior Taliban or al Qaeda figure believed to be sheltered in the rugged, semi-autonomous region. Instead, the mission ended in a settlement that offered amnesty to foreign and tribal fighters who had fiercely resisted the raids, including one local leader who this week pledged loyalty to the Taliban and an anti-Western holy war.

On Monday, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, called on Pakistan to renew its military operations in the defiant tribal regions. Criticizing Pakistan's conciliatory approach, he said that "there are foreign fighters in those tribal areas who will have to be killed or captured."

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, has made similar critical remarks, expressing disappointment and impatience with Pakistan's performance. So far, U.S. officials noted, not a single foreign fighter has come forward to register under Pakistan's amnesty, though officials have twice extended the deadline for them to surrender or face military action. Last week, the cutoff date was extended to May 8.

Pakistani authorities have bristled at the American criticism, saying they remain determined to uproot Islamic terrorism but must balance the concerns of their allies with the need to respect public opinion and keep the peace at home.

"We are committed to the war on terror and we will pursue it to the end," said a senior government official. "We have a well-thought-out operational and political strategy. We need American support, but we are also sensitive to public opinion, and we do not want to add fuel to the extremists.

"It's a tricky situation, and we must be nimble," he added. "If we don't take care of our domestic constituents, we cannot deliver to the Americans either."

Compromise averts wider clash
Pakistan is an impoverished Muslim country of 150 million people, rife with religious passions and bristling with weapons. Many Pakistanis are obsessed with national sovereignty and suspicious of Western motives; some adhere to radical interpretations of Islam and oppose efforts to modernize society. Tribesmen are especially protective of their autonomy and traditional way of life.

The agreement that was sealed at the April meeting in South Waziristan may have rewarded a group the government had vowed to punish for harboring foreign terrorists, but analysts say it also averted a wider clash with restive tribesmen, a potential split in the army and a backlash by the country's militant Islamic movement.

"The compromise was an acknowledgment of brutal reality," said Rifaat Hussain, an expert on Pakistani defense issues. "The government wanted to win international credibility, but it could not go too far without risking domestic opposition and possibly provoking a local war. The overriding goal became not to open another front and antagonize the tribal areas -- even at the price of international criticism."

A similar balancing act has blunted many of the initiatives promoted by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, since he seized power in October 1999. He frequently has been forced to scale back or even abandon ambitious reform efforts, backed by Western governments, after encountering strong resistance from political, religious or economic groups at home.

But the dilemma has been sharpest when it comes to the war on terrorism, to which Musharraf has repeatedly committed his government since the Bush administration first demanded his support after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Musharraf's decision to back the U.S.-led effort abruptly put the Pakistani government, which supported not only the Taliban but also a handful of Muslim guerrilla groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir, at odds with many powerful segments of society.

This week, for example, while U.S. officials were expressing concern that Pakistan had backed off in the border region, the Pakistani parliament erupted in indignation at the news that a handful of U.S. troops had briefly strayed across the poorly marked border from southeastern Afghanistan.

"There is not a single Pakistani who accepts the intrusion of a single foreign soldier on Pakistani soil," said Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and legislator of the opposition Pakistan People's Party in parliament. He said the government must balance the need to combat terrorism with respect for due process, national sovereignty and domestic traditions, including the laws that limit state intervention in the tribal areas.

"We cannot countenance that foreign elements take refuge in Pakistan to destabilize Afghanistan or any other country, but we also cannot countenance a paramilitary operation that ignores the political system and brutalizes the human rights of Pakistani citizens," Ahsan said. "No one wants foreign elements in Pakistan, but this problem cannot be left to the military alone."

Harsh criticism
Pakistan's religious parties, whose influence has grown dramatically in recent years and who now wield significant power in several provinces and the national legislature, have been far harsher, repeatedly branding Musharraf as a Western lackey.

Under the April 24 agreement, five tribal guerrilla leaders received full amnesties in return for agreeing to lay down their weapons. Foreign guerrillas were allowed to remain in the tribal areas as long as they agreed to live peacefully and register with the government.

This week Naik Mohammed, 28, one of the tribal leaders, received local journalists in his village. He denied harboring any fighters from other countries, but he described himself as an Islamic holy warrior and said he had fought alongside the Taliban in the past.

Within Pakistan, reaction to the agreement has been mixed. Numerous critics said that while it temporarily pacified the tribal region, it also may have emboldened such troublemakers as Mohammed and set back efforts to reform the governance of tribal areas, which have traditionally been havens for crime, smuggling, violence and primitive forms of justice.

Some, however, saw the agreement as something more portentous: a tactical retreat from an anti-terrorist policy that government critics say could lead to further military intervention in Pakistani politics.

"The Americans are using Pakistan, and what their officials in Kabul are asking of us is the road to suicide," said Sen. Khursheed Ahmad, an Islamic scholar and member of the country's largest Islamic party. "We do not condone terrorism, but the Americans are trying to persuade us to kill our own people. If the war on terror leads the army to carve out an institutional role in politics, it will be bad for Pakistan and bad for America too."