ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Despite growing U.S. military losses in Afghanistan, Pakistan still refuses to target the extremist groups on its soil that are the biggest threat to the American-led mission there, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan told McClatchy Newspapers.
Eight years after Washington and Islamabad agreed to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, Pakistan has “different priorities” from the U.S., Anne Patterson said in a recent interview. Pakistan is “certainly reluctant to take action” against the leadership of the Afghan insurgency.
As the war in Afghanistan becomes more brutal — and as its political and popular support wanes in the U.S. — Pakistan’s refusal to act in support of American goals is undermining the U.S. effort to deny al-Qaida and other extremist groups a sanctuary in Afghanistan.
The most effective Taliban fighters, the Haqqani network of veteran Afghan jihadist Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, operate out of the North Waziristan region of Pakistan’s tribal territory. Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar is widely thought to be based in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, from which he directs the insurgency through the so-called “Quetta Shura,” or leadership council.
Experts on the Afghanistan war think that military progress and political stability won’t be possible unless the government roots out the havens the insurgents have established in western Pakistan. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research center, concluded in its annual review this week that “Pakistan remained the biggest source of instability for Afghanistan.”
Pakistani officials, however, say that their country’s priority should be to tackle Islamic militants who threaten Pakistan. They charge that the U.S. is blind to Pakistan’s concerns over traditional foe India as it presses Pakistan to redeploy forces from its eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan.
The disagreement between Washington and Islamabad was illustrated starkly this week when former President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged in a television interview that he’d diverted American military equipment that was meant to fight the Taliban in western Pakistan for use against India. “One doesn’t care who one crosses,” Musharraf told Pakistan’s Express News.
In testimony Tuesday before Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, said: “The Pakistani military … consider their principal threat — their existential threat — to be Indian, not these extremists.”
The U.S. has lavished praise on the Pakistani army for the offensive it launched in April against Taliban militants in Pakistan.
The operation marked the first serious sign of determination to deal with armed extremists, but it hasn’t extended to groups in Pakistan that fight exclusively in Afghanistan. Mullen said that Pakistan’s recent anti-terrorism actions “had a big impact” although “it hasn’t been perfect.”
While Pakistan and the U.S. agree on targeting al-Qaida and, more recently, the Taliban Movement of Pakistan (“Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan”), they strongly disagree over action against Afghan insurgents operating from Pakistani territory.
“Where we differ, of course, is the treatment of the groups who are attacking our troops in Afghanistan. And that comes down to Haqqani and Gul Bahadur and Nazir, to a lesser extent Hekmatyar, and yes, of course, there are differences there,” Patterson said, naming some of the most prominent extremist leaders. “We have a very candid dialogue about this with some frequency.”
Bahadur, based in North Waziristan, and Maulvi Nazir, based in South Waziristan, are Pakistani Taliban commanders who fight only in Afghanistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an old-time Afghan militant commander, is based near the Pakistani border.
“In my view the Pakistanis don’t have the capacity to go after some of these groups. Some they do, let me stress. But say Siraj Haqqani holds territory, huge swaths of territory in North Waziristan, where he’s been implanted for years,” Patterson said.
“My own view is that the Haqqani group is the biggest threat (in Afghanistan). The Quetta Shura, yes, is sort of a command and control. They move in and out of Afghanistan. But the Haqqani group has … shown the ability to reach all the way to Kabul with these huge attacks, which not only kill loads of people but are also politically destabilizing.”
Nevertheless, Patterson said that Pakistan had “taken more action against some of these groups than most people are aware of.”
Until 2001, Pakistan openly supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, which in turn hosted al-Qaida’s leadership. Pakistan officially abandoned the Taliban, under enormous American pressure, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. However, many Western military officers think that the Pakistani military, which remains in charge of Afghanistan policy, continues to view the Taliban’s Mullah Omar and Haqqani as assets, an insurance policy it might have to rely on if the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan and the Taliban return to power. Haqqani has been close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency since the 1980s.
Pakistan also has grievances against the U.S. Last year, Washington signed a civil nuclear cooperation deal with India, but not with Pakistan. India also has played a significant role in Afghanistan — with an aid program worth more than $1 billion, including road-building and education assistance — which has raised suspicions in Pakistan.
“We consider India as a threat to our security; the Americans don’t,” said a senior official in the Pakistani administration, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
He added: “We can’t go after everyone at the same time — that would destabilize our own country — but we will do it.”
Pakistan says that the U.S. has failed to provide it with the right military hardware for the anti-terror fight. Islamabad also thinks that international forces in Afghanistan haven’t been effective in sealing their side of the largely unmarked, porous border, so Afghan extremists infiltrate Pakistan and fight the Pakistani army in the tribal area, especially the Bajaur region.
“We have complained and informed them (NATO) that the strength they have on their side of the border (in Afghanistan) is not even a tenth of what we have on our side,” said Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who added that “obviously the threat (in Pakistan) that’s more significant will be taken care of first,” without specifying what it is.
Underlying Pakistan’s concerns in Afghanistan is the grave doubt that top Pakistani military and civilian officials harbor — which Mullen acknowledged in his testimony — about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, amid growing public opposition to the war there.
“What happens if America leaves? What would Pakistan’s situation be the day after?” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. “If we pick a fight with every group in the tribal area and Afghanistan, after the Americans leave, everybody would pounce on Pakistan.”
The risk is of a self-fulfilling prophecy: that Pakistan’s inaction, based on its distrust of American motives, helps lead to the very situation the country says it wants to avoid. If the Taliban retake Afghanistan, Mullen said in his testimony, “the internal threat to Pakistan by extremism will only worsen.”