Hunt Is On For US-NATO Inside Pakistan?
Syed Saleem Shahzad reports in the Asia Times that Pervez Musharraf and US & NATO commanders have reached an agreement giving Coalition forces the green light to hunt operatives and camps of the Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Pakistan's borders and that "coalition forces will start hitting targets wherever they might be." If accurate, this is a significant development that will have both good and bad implications. Shahzad is one of the most knowledgeable, connected and normally reliable journalists in the region.
Both sides, American and Pakistani, have public campaigns of operational denial. First, from the Coalition:
Officially, both NATO and Pakistan deny any agreement on hot-pursuit activities. Major John Thomas, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, told Asia Times Online, "The ISAF would not strike any targets across the border. That is not part of our mission. We work with the Pakistani government closely on cross-border issues. The ISAF does not have a counter-terrorism mission that I know of."
To believe there is no counterterrorism mission within Afghanistan and Pakistan (whether any combination of intelligence gathering, air strikes and/or ground operations) is to believe there are no al-Qaeda terrorists in the UK. Al-Qaeda's global headquarters exists in Pakistan's tribal regions. Of course there is a counterterrorism mission, official, unofficial or otherwise. The US does not want to publicly acknowledge its ongoing operations against al-Qaeda within Pakistan for a variety of reasons.
Next, from the Pakistanis is official denial for the opposite reason.
Similarly, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistani Armed Forces, Major-General Waheed Arshad, said NATO forces would not be allowed to intervene in Pakistani areas. He conceded that Pakistan is wary of growing extremism in the country, but said there is no threat of Talibanization.
"The Taliban are a problem for Afghanistan, not Pakistan. There are a few extremist groups operating in Pakistan and we have our own indigenous mechanism to counter them through law-enforcement agencies, and through paramilitary and military deployment," Waheed said.
Pakistan does not want to publicly acknowledge the extent of al-Qaeda and Taliban operations, camps and fighters long within its own borders because to do so exposes the role of numerous members of Pakistan's own Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) providing critical support to both. That the Taliban was an ISI creation in Afghanistan to begin with is more than an open secret.
Potential implications of an open agreement allowing US/NATO pursuit and attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Pakistan are chiefly two:
1. Operational freedom for the Coalition against a terrorist force currently enjoying safe haven in Pakistan from which to mount cross-border and international terrorist attacks. This means a more direct and effective campaign against both.
2. On the flip side, such an open acknowledgment and subsequent US/NATO attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda could spur the two to finally attempt to mount an offensive overthrow of the Musharraf regime, risking sooner under direct pressure and effective military operations (rather than simply later with no true second northwestern front), the fall of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal into terrorist hands. This may be a calculated risk accepted by Musharraf in hopes that any push by the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance might be counterbalanced by US pressure from the west, hindering their potential attempts to push east into the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Pure speculation at this point on an unverified report that both sides are already denying. But there have been absolutely no developments in Musharraf's favor for months. He may be hedging his bets for his own survival, and the US leveraging his precarious position in a way that may be the only way to possibly forestall or prevent an Islamist takeover of Pakistan and her nuclear arsenal.
Little good news ever comes out of Pakistan. This news could be the lesser of two evils - action vice inaction and initiative vice reaction.