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Still a Dangerous Border

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
May 5, 2008

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The latest spike in cross-border attacks (NYT) into Afghanistan by militants based in Pakistan has once again exposed the vulnerabilities of those fighting the war for a stable Afghanistan. In a repeat of past instances, Afghan officials blamed (IHT) the recent assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai on insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas with links to al-Qaeda. A spokesperson from Pakistan’s army denied (Daily Times) the allegations. But all recent U.S. intelligence and investigative reports have pointed to the growing strength of the terrorist groups in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border.“Using the sanctuary in the border area of Pakistan, al-Qaeda has been able to maintain a cadre of skilled lieutenants capable of directing the organization’s operations around the world,” said the 2008 Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence.

President Karzai has called for these sanctuaries in Pakistan to be closed off. “The war against terrorism is not in Afghan villages, the war against terrorism is elsewhere, and that’s where the war should go,” he told the New York Times. Last year was Afghanistan’s bloodiest year since 2001, when the U.S.-led forces entered the country. A number of policy experts in the United States, including the leading Democratic presidential candidates, have called for more troops in Afghanistan to fight the insurgency, but some experts are skeptical that greater numbers will be more effective. “No matter how many more troops you add into Afghanistan, you won’t really be able to get at the root of the problem” (PBS), says Barnett Rubin of New York University. Rubin says more troops cannot affect the regional situation, which gives the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.

Increased instability, in part due to a growing terrorist presence in the tribal lands, has also led to an increase in violence within the rest of Pakistan. Russ Travers, deputy director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, said terrorist attacks in Pakistan doubled from 2006 to 2007, and the number of deaths and injuries in these attacks quadrupled.

Washington is skeptical (RFE/RL) of the Pakistani government’s strategy of pursuing peace deals with the militants in the tribal areas. The accord under consideration calls for an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal areas. The troop withdrawal clause is problematic for the Pakistani government, as well as the United States, and experts say it has led to a stalemate in negotiations. Analysts note that the prospective deal is limited (NPR); while it seeks to stop Taliban attacks against the Pakistani forces, it does not stop the militants from crossing the border and targeting NATO forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Bush administration faces increasing scrutiny on its Pakistan policy. An April 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of U.S. Congress, said the United States lacked a comprehensive plan to destroy the terrorist threat in Pakistan’s border region.

Several Pakistan experts and U.S. officials have pointed to the failure of past peace deals to argue against the ongoing talks. But, in a Washington Post op-ed, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, called these comparisons “erroneous.” Newsweek columnist Michael Hirsh argues the Bush administration should embrace Islamabad’s post-Musharraf strategy. He writes that the new Pakistani government is betting on what U.S. officials would identify as a classic counterinsurgency strategy—one they have adopted for Sunni insurgects in Iraq: “deploying the military while winning hearts and minds by pouring aid into the tribal regions where extremists hide out.”

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