Cross-border attacks and USA's inertia
15 August, 2012
By Momin Iftikhar
It has been long in coming, but the increasing frequency and viciousness of attacks launched by the TTP elements and the Afghan Taliban, across the Pak-Afghan borders into Pakistan, has reached a stage where the issue has acquired the status of a major irritant that is capable of seriously influencing the flow of trilateral relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US.
The issue has a serious significance for the security of Pakistan's western borders, as it is impossible to ignore the consequences of the attacks on the border outposts that, in routine, are sparsely manned by paramilitary troops and lack mutual support with adjoining posts in view of their generic function of keeping a vigil on the border in peacetime. They lack the capacity and capability of fighting off determined assaults. The fact that these Pakistani outposts are the objectives of insurgents vicious attacks has served to change the nature of deployment of troops on the Pak-Afghan borders, where the army has moved in to plug the gaping voids and buttress the strength of the first line of defence.
Another aspect that stands underscored is the failure or culpability of the Isaf troops and the Afghan National Army (ANA), who are custodians on the Afghan side of the border and whose lack of action has only emboldened the terrorists to acquire numerical strength and sophisticated weaponry to launch the cross-border attacks.
As the successful 2009 Pak Army operations to flush out the strident insurgents from Swat and surrounding areas curtailed the space of operations for these witches brew of terrorists, they withdrew across the border into the adjoining Nuristan and Kunar provinces to recuperate and reorganise afresh. These areas are under the operational control of the Isaf and the ANA and turning a Nelson's Eye to the terrorists by the security forces has enabled them to regroup, refit and develop local tentacles that have turned these once on the run depleted outfits into formidable organisations.
The standout peculiarities of these outfits is their Pakistan-centric hostility and a skewed, hands off policy by the Isaf and ANA troops that has emboldened them to launch vicious cross-border attacks into Pakistan with total impunity. Top TTP leaders; the former Chief of Taliban in Swat Valley, Maulvi Fazlullah a.k.a Radio Mullah, Maulvi Faqir from Bajaur and the TTP leader in Mohmand Tribal Agency, Abdul Wali, have found the embrace of a welcoming shelter in these areas from where they are launching hit-and-run attacks on Pakistani border posts.
After a close encounter with the Pakistan Army in 2009 that left him at the brink of death, Fazlullah scurried into Nuristan where he is now firmly entrenched with 300 to 400 terrorists and regularly flits between his stronghold and the Bajaur Tribal Agency to organise cross-border strikes. His fighters are equipped with US origin sophisticated weapons and the state-of-the-art communication equipment. The US troops' withdrawal from Nuristan and Kunar area in February 2011 has provided him with unfettered liberty of action, consolidating his position as the resident dominant warlord; even eclipsing the authority of the local Taliban Commander, Dost Muhammad, who helps him with launching attacks by lending him his fighters on a basis of reciprocity.
The northern Kunar province adjoining Nuristan has a toxic mix of the TTP insurgents owing allegiance to various warlords. Maulvi Faqir Mohammad is the dominant TTP commander here making the area between the Kunar River and the Pak-Afghan border the hub of anti-Pakistan operations. With the strength of 200 to 300 terrorists, he is primarily engaged in launching cross-border attacks in the Bajaur area, while the elements controlled by Fazlullah maintain a strong and visible presence there as well. In southern Kunar, Wali Muhammad holds sway as the leading TTP commander with his fighters receiving visible assistance and patronage from the local Afghan functionaries, who retain a barely tenuous administrative profile juxtaposed to strident insurgent presence.
Such strong presence of the leading TTP commanders, operating freely without any pressure from the Isaf and ANA, has serious implications for Pakistan. The increasing scale and the virulence of attacks has posed a level of threat that is simply impossible to ignore, even as they get a far less mention in the international press than the attacks in Afghanistan launched allegedly by the Haqqani Network.
During 2011, the casualties suffered by the security forces surpassed the figure of one hundred; costliest being the attack in August last year in which 25 security men were killed in the northern Chitral District. With the onset of summer this year, the cross-border attacks have recommenced; with three occurring within the month of June, including the one in which 13 troops embraced shahadat. If the happenings of the last year are any guide, the trend is only going to escalate in the coming months, unless the safe havens and the terrorists' leading commanders in the Isaf controlled areas are effectively neutralised.
Pakistan has done all within its means to draw USA's attention to this aspect at the highest diplomatic and military channels of available communications; regrettably without achieving any measure of success. Accurate information regarding large concentrations of the TTP terrorists and their Afghan affiliates in Nuristan and Kunar provinces has been passed to the Isaf, but apparently nothing seems to have moved.
Obviously, the issue of Pakistani casualties resulting from cross-border attacks, emanating from the areas under the Isaf and the ANA control, does not command the requisite priority with these organisations that seem to be only obsessed with the attacks by the Haqqani Network and consistently harp on their demand for a military operation in North Waziristan. America's Ambassador-designate to Islamabad, Richard Olson, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has reaffirmed that persuading Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqanis would be his "most important priority." He has said nothing about gauging the current and impending US policy on the cross-border attacks into Pakistan. Simply because such attacks are spilling Pakistani blood and pose no threat to US soldiers, it is not a good enough reason for these to be shrugged off by the American diplomats and military commanders.
Now, that the gridlock effectively blocking the GLOCs that was vitiating ambience of Pak-US relations has been successfully dismantled through bilateral recognition of common grounds, time may be ripe for rationalising the untenable US narrative on Pakistan's alleged support to the Haqqani Network and a manifest inertia in the US military to block the cross-border attacks from the Afghan territory into Pakistan.
The writer is a freelance columnist.