Caution: Taliban Crossing

By Arthur Keller, a former C.I.A. case officer in Pakistan (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 28/11/07):

In the early 1900s, a crusty British general, Andrew Skeen, wrote a guide to military operations in the Pashtun tribal belt, in what is now Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. His first piece of advice: “When planning a military expedition into Pashtun tribal areas, the first thing you must plan is your retreat. All expeditions into this area sooner or later end in retreat under fire.” This was written decades before the advent of suicide bombers, when the Pashtuns had little but rifles yet nevertheless managed to give their British overlords fits.

These same tribal areas are now focus of Pakistan’s struggle with the Pakistani Taliban, particularly the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas on the Afghan border and the Swat region further north. The government trumpets it has more than 80,000 troops in the tribal areas, fighting bravely to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Unfortunately, these troops — supported with tens of millions of dollars in American aid — appear even less able to police this wild frontier than were the canny British.

Despite the government’s claims of a successful offensive over last weekend, for the most part the Pakistani Army is totally on the defensive and doing almost nothing to bring the fight to the militants. Yes, there have been heavy casualties in recent months, but this is very misleading: they are largely coming from roadside-bomb attacks against convoys and Taliban assaults against Pakistani military bases and checkpoints. There are relatively few reports of casualties during foot patrols, raids or any offensive assaults.

The only consistent reports of offensive action by the Pakistani Army involve the use of helicopter gunships and artillery to attack militant compounds. Aerial assaults, when carried out without support from “boots on the ground,” serve but one purpose: they help sustain the illusion that the Pakistani government is taking effective action.

The truth is that the soldiers have lost the will to fight. Reports in the Indian press, based on information from the very competent Indian intelligence agencies, describe a Pakistani Army in disarray in the tribal areas. Troops are deserting and often refusing to fight their “Muslim brothers.”

Nothing illustrated this apathy more clearly than the capture of hundreds of troops in August by the Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud with nary a shot fired in resistance.

While the Pakistani Army has been giving up, the Taliban has been on the offensive, and not just in combat operations. The Pakistani Taliban churns out a stream of propaganda videos and radio broadcasts from “black” stations, aimed at undermining morale within the army while cutting away support for the military within wider Pakistani society. If the Pakistani Army is too weak to act effectively, what about cooperation on the intelligence front? After all, most major Qaeda members now in United States custody were captured with Pakistani cooperation. Unfortunately, that relationship, too, now appears to be losing steam.

This year has seen a notable lack of Qaeda members killed or captured in Pakistan. The Afghan government has turned over detailed lists of names and addresses for Taliban members residing in Pakistan, particularly in the city of Quetta. Not only has this information not led to arrests, Pakistan has routinely continued to deny that the Taliban’s leadership is in Quetta. A Pakistani military officer told me last year (in an uncharacteristic fit of honesty): “If we are not catching the Taliban, it is not because the Taliban is so clever, or so good at hiding. We just aren’t trying.”

So what is America’s retreat strategy? We should not divert our attention from the frontier, which is home to so much Qaeda and Taliban activity. We should, however, stop blindly supporting President Pervez Musharraf, his army and intelligence services.

As in Iraq, we should make financial support contingent on benchmarks. If the Pakistani Army claims it is effectively battling militants in Waziristan and elsewhere, great — but such claims need to be verified by military observers accompanying the Pakistani troops on offensive raids.

Likewise, the Bush administration and Congress could demand concrete measures of Qaeda or Taliban members killed and captured, proof that actionable intelligence passed to the Pakistanis by American or Afghan sources is being acted on rather than ignored.

Yes, this may well weaken President Musharraf, whom we have given a great deal of support over the years. But our expensive investment in him has yielded little in the way of tangible results. We need policy based on what is actually happening along the Afghan frontier, not on wishful thinking that someday Pakistan will become an effective partner in the war against terrorism.