DE BORCHGRAVE: Afghanistan quandary
Thursday, July 17, 2008
It was an ultimatum of sorts by a U.S. senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Pakistan's new civilian government. Either Pakistan's new civilian government gets serious about flushing out al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from their safe havens in Pakistan's tribal border areas - or aid to Pakistan's military will have to be reassessed.
Pakistan cannot reduce - let alone end - Taliban's cross-border raids into Afghanistan without sending its regular army back into action. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, say Pakistan's military commanders, and the T-shirt reads: "Don't come back and stop taking American orders."
The Bush administration, in its remaining five months, should not expect a presently rudderless government in Pakistan to help out in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). It has troubles enough on the home front where a 400-strong Taliban force laid siege to a Frontier Corps fort near Hangu in the Northwest Frontier Province - in Pakistan proper. The garrison surrendered. Taliban fighters drove in, loaded their vehicles with arms and ammo, then blew up the fort. Taliban rockets also smashed into the Army's Armored Corps Center between Islamabad and its twin city of Rawalpindi.
Some 100,000 troops - mostly Punjabis loath to kill tribal kinsmen - were assigned to the seven FATA agencies under U.S. pressure. They lost 1,400 soldiers killed and 3 times that number wounded. Some Pakistani units were ambushed and surrendered without firing a shot. Why should they kill their fellow countrymen, they asked their officers.
Sen. Bob Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, in a breakfast talk to the Asia Society, said if the army can't stamp out cross-border flows of "militants, weapons and other illicit trade," then the Frontier Corps (FC) of militarized local tribesmen under Pakistani officers will have to do the job. The administration recently notified Congress it planned to use $74.5 million for a security development plan to train and equip the FC to conduct counterinsurgency activities within the FATA and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and put an end to Taliban's incursions into Afghanistan.
The FC is made up of locals who surrendered in large numbers to Taliban fighters last year. Taliban's current advantage is their guerrillas are paid $8 a day against FC's $2 a day, and their opium poppy-purchased weapons are often better than FC's.
Mr. Casey conceded that Gen. Dan McNeill, who until recently commanded NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, declined to endorse U.S. plans to train and equip the Frontier Corps, "questioning the effectiveness and loyalty of the tribally recruited guards."
Shuja Nawaz is a Pakistani journalist/scholar and authority on the Pakistani Army whose recent book, "Crossed Swords" is on the international best-seller list. He says that to put benchmarks on Pakistan "without addressing the basic Trust Deficit between the U.S. and Pakistan and specifically the army ... will only convince Pakistanis that the U.S. is ready to pull the rug again and decamp," much the way it first did when the last Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan Feb. 15, 1989.
The United States did not endear itself to the Pakistan Army when it withheld visas for some of the Pakistani colonels who had been invited by the Pentagon to attend a confidence-building exercise with their Afghan counterparts. But the Afghans got their visas. Mr. Nawaz added: "Guess what's Topic A in army messes throughout Pakistan now? 'The Americans do not trust us,' they are saying, 'so why should we trust them?' "
Gen. David Petraeus, who is leaving his Iraq command post later this month to take over CentCom the first week of September, says his principal concern as he looks at his entire area of responsibility, which is larger than the continental United States, including 25 mostly Muslim nations in the Persian Gulf, Horn of Africa, Caspian Sea Basin, is FATA.
That region, where only 3 percent of the women can read, will determine the success or failure of the Afghan Taliban insurgency comeback. And the future of NATO now hinges on success or failure in FATA.
NATO's first out-of-area (out of Europe) operation in its 60-year history is Afghanistan. Failure in Afghanistan would leave NATO toothless without a mission. Milton Bearden, the legendary hero of the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, said this week the Afghan theater was "spinning out of control." During the last two months, U.S. casualties ran higher than in Iraq. Taliban attacks are up 40 percent over last year.
Domestic opinion among America's NATO allies whose soldiers are doing the fighting - the Netherlands, Britain, Canada - along with 37,000 U.S. troops, want out by 2011 at the latest. A British Defense Ministry survey showed half of all British soldiers want out of the service.
French, German, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and others are not participating in combat operations due to political opposition at home. Even supplying them to stay put is proving beyond the capabilities of slimmed down, post-Cold War defense budgets. Most Afghan experts cannot see any chance of success without an open-ended commitment -of at least five and possibly 10 years.
Last week, several hundred Taliban launched a surprise dawn attack against a new U.S. forward base close to the Pakistani border. The attack killed nine U.S. troops and wounded 15. Only raid air strikes saved the base from being overrun, only to be abandoned this week.
After saying U.S. troops should exit Iraq prudently, Barack Obama makes the point Afghanistan is where the only war on terror is taking place. And he says he is prepared to shift a large number of U.S. soldiers and assets to the guerrilla war against Taliban in Afghanistan. That leads some intelligence experts to ask, somewhat anxiously, whether Afghanistan could become Mr. Obama's Vietnam, as it was Russia's Vietnam before?
Mr. Bearden reminds us that in 1838 a British expeditionary force captured Kandahar and then moved on to Kabul to complete the conquest of Afghanistan. But when the winter of 1841-42 began, Afghans rose up with the guns they were born with. A British retreat to India was hastily assembled. As the long 15,000-strong caravan entered the first gorge on its way back to India, the British were attacked from all sides. Only one man was spared so he could escape to tell the story.
How to convince Afghans that NATO is there to stay is part of Gen. Petraeus' challenge. The average Afghan knows NATO will be gone one day. But ordinary Afghans know Taliban is there to stay.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.