Violent clashes with militants in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan come at a politically sensitive time for Pakistan’s embattled president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Hours after garnering 98 percent of the vote in a controversial parliamentary election, and under immense pressure to bring stability to a border zone experts say is seeing a resurgence of militants, Musharraf ordered a flurry of air strikes on extremist encampments. Journalists have reported difficulty accessing the area, but Pakistani army officials say roughly two hundred militants have been killed during the air strikes, along with about forty-seven soldiers, the heaviest fighting (Guardian) since Islamabad vowed to support the U.S.-led war on terror in 2001.
Casualty counts aside, the fighting in the tribal belt has an important political component. For Musharraf, struggling to maintain support as he awaits a legal challenge to his election victory, the military strikes appear aimed at quieting critics as much as quelling violence. A day after the White House released its October 2007 analysis (PDF) of domestic security threats asserting al-Qaeda has “regenerated” within Pakistan’s tribal belt, Musharraf’s government fired a decisive salvo: “The action taken against militant elements by Pakistan shows our commitment against terrorism and indicates our resolve that Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used for any act of terrorism,” said (Times of India) Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq.
Most experts agree the militants amassed in the tribal belt represent a significant threat to Pakistan’s leadership, as well as to Afghanistan’s stability. The most recent tension began in July, when the army stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad to quash a student uprising led by a rebel cleric. A ten-month-old peace deal intended to curb cross-border attacks into Afghanistan collapsed days later (WashPost). Then in August, militants in South Waziristan “humiliated the army” by capturing nearly three hundred soldiers—who reportedly surrendered without firing a shot. Roughly thirty have been released, but three soldiers were killed (BBC) by suspected pro-Taliban militants earlier this month.
The killings came just weeks after al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri called on supporters to rebel against Musharraf (FOX) and his army. Sandy Berger and Bruce Riedel, in an International Herald Tribune op-ed, suggest Musharraf’s recent missteps may have provided fodder for bin Laden’s recent call to jihad. John Kiriakou, a former CIA anti-terrorism official, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that political instability in Pakistan has allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda to regroup in the tribal belts, “and then to cross back into Afghanistan to attack NATO troops.”
Achieving long-term peace in the tense border region will prove difficult. Some tribal elders and local politicians say the recent uptick in violence is directly linked to a “lingering paralysis” dealing with the threat, largely due to Islamabad’s obsession with securing re-election (NYT) for Gen. Musharraf. Barnett R. Rubin, an expert on the region at New York University, says the future of Afghanistan depends on democratization of Pakistan, especially in the border region. But Najmuddin A. Shaikh, a former Pakistani diplomat, is not optimistic that will happen anytime soon. While political efforts “should focus on drawing up viable projects” in the tribal region, he writes in an op-ed in the newspaper Dawn, “this is not about to happen.”