Since the 15th of June, 70 000 of Pakistan’s ‘’valiant armed forces have tasked to eliminate [Waziristan’s] terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries’’, in the words of Pakistani Major General Asim Bajwa. The Pakistan army states that, in the first 15 days of the operation, almost 400 terrorists were killed. This claim cannot be independently verified given that journalists are not allowed to operate in the Waziristan regions, meaning the army is the only source of information about the operation. Given that the army also claims not a single civilian has been killed during this time, doubt is cast on these numbers.
A development long urged by Washington, this offensive into the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is unlikely to have the long-term effect sought.
Three factors support my claim, with the third being a reason for even greater worry.
First, the circumstances leading to this ground war. Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan, is accused by critics of trusting too much in negotiations, to the point of foregoing any other options. For months, negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban had been ongoing, with few concrete results. Ignoring a vote in which most of the ruling party’s parliamentarians supported a military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, followed the following day by a top official describing the country as being ‘’on a war footing’’ (events taking place respectively on the 27th and 28th of January 2014), Sharif announced the creation of a peace committee, trying yet another time to bring the militants in from the cold. While talks were losing steam, a brazen attack on Karachi’s international airport, responsible for over two dozen deaths, on June 8th precipitated the declaration of war.
While various negotiations between Taliban factions and governments have failed to stop the insurgency, Pakistan is in a prime position to understand that open war only escalates tensions. In 2004, ex-President Musharraf allied himself to the War on Terror, sending Pakistani troops into the FATA. In response, Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (the capital’s largest place of worship, the Red Mosque) became a center for protests against the ‘un-Islamic’ military action. On the 12th of July 2007, after the army was forced to besiege and storm the mosque, the Swat Valley Taliban declared war on the Pakistani government, becoming the militant group known as the Pakistani Taliban.
The Prime Minister’s reluctance to abandon the peace talks, coupled with fears of creating new anti-state extremist groups, may lead to the ongoing ground war not having the strength needed to deal a death-blow to the Taliban.
Second, a very possible betrayal by Pakistan’s most powerful intelligence agency, the ISI. As Afghan mujahedeen were battling the Soviet invasion of 1979, the United States used Pakistan as a proxy in order to fund and train the asymmetrical resistance. Since then, various entities—Washington, analysts from Harvard and the London School of Economics, NATO, Kabul—have accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of maintaining Cold War ties to militant groups in Afghanistan, in essence dictating and executing a foreign policy targeting Afghanistan, running in parallel to Islamabad’s. The relation between the two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has hence grown to be so important that the two are often contemplated together, as with the United States’ ”Af-Pak” grouping. Two causes are partially responsible for this.
Since independence from the British Empire in 1947, Pakistan’s greatest perceived threat has been India. Three Indo-Pakistani wars, with a fourth narrowly avoided in 1999, have left the Pakistani military wary of their much larger neighbor. Due to the strong cultural and historical ties between India and Afghanistan, diplomatic bonds strengthened by the return of an elected Afghan administration could lead to Pakistan being surrounded by Indian allies. Hence, by keeping Kabul in an either unstable or anti-Indian state, the ISI pre-emptively protects one border. By going one step further and supporting a pro-Pakistan government—Pakistan was one of the only three nations to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan—, additional ‘’strategic depth’’, perceived as being necessary in the event of all-out warfare with India, is gained.
Related to this is the fact that Kabul refuses to recognize the Durand Line, the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan traced in 1893. Last year, now-outgoing President Karzai of Afghanistan reiterated that Kabul has never, and that his government will not, recognize this frontier. Fears that a stable government in Kabul would attempt to seduce Pashtun regions in Pakistan before annexing them into Afghanistan, the ‘’original home’’ of the Pashtun, support the claim that a strong Afghan government is not in Islamabad’s favor.
The Taliban have without a doubt managed to destabilize Afghanistan for close to two decades. By continuing support for terrorist groups targeting India or Afghanistan, either by warning members of imminent strikes or by using their influence in the military to veto certain targets, the anti-insurgent campaign will be undermined. However, it can also be seen as being sharpened: by allowing only anti-Islamabad groups to be struck down, the ISI protects national interests while advancing its version of foreign policy.
Third, the lull in Afghan security and stability. The FATA are aligned along the Durand Line, meaning that as Pakistani troops sweep through the territories, they will be pushing militants against the Afghan frontier. For various reasons, if only because the Taliban factions have been in effective control of the largely-ungoverned FATA, it is easy to suspect that the international border is too porous to stop any fleeing militants.
Pakistan has requested help from Kabul in sealing the frontier, understanding that the porous border is not the ‘hard place’ needed to smash the insurgent front. However, it is widely doubted that the Afghan army is truly ready to maintain national security independently, let alone surge into Taliban territory and decimate waves of insurgents crossing the border. Furthermore, training of this army had recently been suspended due to infestation by Talibanized suicide bombers. Due to the withdrawal of international forces, what remains of the ISAF coalition is mostly various aircraft, not the ideal tool for enforcing border control. Despite this, Washington has complained about being warned of the operation’s commencement only three days previous, leaving it too little time to mobilize an adequate border patrol.
The Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America, shortened to Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) is a binding agreement seeking to create a long-term bond between the United States and Afghanistan prioritizing Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and prosperity, while advancing their common goal of destroying al-Qaeda and like-minded organisations. More specifically, the United States will (amongst other promises), upon the signing of the SPA: be granted access to governmental facilities in Afghanistan post 2014; be allowed to station troops in Afghanistan with the goal of forming Afghan forces and eliminating the remnants of al-Qaida and like-minded networks; for the next ten years, annually seek Congress-approved funding for the support of the Afghan National Security Forces.
The SPA will hence aid United States personnel and intelligence in the targeting and elimination of extremists in Afghanistan, allowing Kabul to secure more of its land. However, the outgoing President Karzai has stated he will not sign this agreement, leaving whoever succeeds him to approve the partnership. While both remaining candidates have declared they would sign the agreement once inaugurated, allegations of massive fraud have led to a full vote audit. Even if over a thousand ballot boxes are verified per day, the new leader will not be designated until mid-August (roughly a month from today). Add to that the recruitment of observers by the European Union, considered particularly important for disproving rumors of American interference, and Afghanistan’s first national audit may well push the inauguration past the unofficial deadline.
Given the operation is expected to last only a few weeks, it seems likely that militants will abandon their strongholds in Pakistan for only as long as the army occupies the Waziristans, with minimal casualties in Afghanistan for reasons detailed above. The Taliban, as NATO forces have learnt, are of a slippery nature. Nonetheless, the sudden influx of militants pushed over the border by Pakistan’s storming of North and South Waziristan, during Kabul’s temporary weakness may prove too much for the fledgling government. However, its survival is important to two of the world’s powers: China and the United States.
The United States, having dragged countless soldiers from allies and
coalitions into two wars, will certainly be affected by the events in Afghanistan. The Iraqi and Afghan wars were, amongst others, meant to erect strong democracies in the two Asian countries. Iraq, with its sectarian head of state and international militant crisis, is difficultly definable as a success. If the Taliban succeed in re-conquering Kabul, reversing any progress made since the 2001 invasion, Washington’s international reputation will be damaged, despite the wars being sparked by a different President over a decade ago.
China, on the other hand, had tried and failed to form an alliance with the previous Taliban government. In exchange for diplomatic recognition and protection from UNSC sanctions, the Taliban would refuse to aid Uyghur militants in their separatist revolution. The failure of this alliance has likely convinced the Communist Party that it stands more to gain from a strong government capable of smothering international terrorism than from an Islamic dictatorship.