The Blog

A Dangerous Neighbor

How Pakistan's deterioration harms Afghanistan.

12:00 AM, Aug 6, 2008 • By BILL ROGGIO and DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE PRE-DAWN SILENCE in eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan province was shattered on July 13 by the racket of machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades; the attack on the new base was fiercer and the insurgent force larger than American troops could have expected. The first enemy fire struck the mortar pit, then their RPGs blew up a tow truck. Stars and Stripes, the U.S. armed forces' overseas newspaper, reported that after two hours of combat "some of the soldiers' guns seized up because they expelled so many rounds so quickly."

The attack on the small base near the remote village of Wanat drew enormous media attention. It was not just the fact that nine American soldiers lost their lives. A reported 200 well-armed insurgents managed to mass around the base and came close to overrunning it. Stars and Stripes noted that "so many RPGs were fired at the soldiers that they wondered how the insurgents had so many." This early morning attack quickly came to symbolize the growing difficulties of the Afghanistan war.

Insurgent activity in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months. According to Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in the region, there were about 40 percent more attacks in eastern Afghanistan over the first five months of 2008 than during the same period a year ago. Schloesser has also described the attacks as "increasingly complex." A mid-July ABC News/Washington Post poll found that a surprising 45 percent of Americans "do not think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting," despite the attacks of 9/11.

A critical factor behind Afghanistan's deteriorating state is the turn of events in Pakistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda have found a safe haven in recent years. After the October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan felled the Taliban, most of al Qaeda's senior leadership relocated to Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, the remote and mountainous regions that border Afghanistan, and set about finding allies within tribal society.

Pakistan's military mounted a campaign to flush al Qaeda out of the tribal areas after the group was connected to multiple assassination attempts against Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, but the military suffered so many losses that Musharraf eventually concluded he had no choice but to deal with his would-be killers. In March and September 2006 he consummated the two halves of the Waziristan accords, peace agreements that essentially ceded Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Musharraf also cut deals with Islamic militants in the regions of Swat, Bajaur, and Mohmand. The treaties, punctuated with frequent skirmishes, symbolized Pakistan's inability to confront its extremists.

The negotiation process only accelerated after a new parliamentary majority rode to power in February on a wave of anti-American sentiment. While negotiations and peace deals with militants have long been part of Pakistan's political landscape, the scale of negotiations under the new majority was unprecedented. Talks opened with virtually every militant outfit in the country, and the government has entered into seven agreements encompassing nine districts.

It was easy to predict the failure of the Waziristan accords, in which the government received only unenforceable promises from extremists, and there is no reason to believe that the new accords will yield a different result. Rather, they are likely to increase the geographic areas that serve as safe havens for Pakistan's extremist groups-with predictable harm to Afghanistan.

The primary advantage that terrorist sanctuaries in northwestern Pakistan provide to the Afghan insurgency is the ability to operate with relative freedom in that country. The U.S. military is constrained in cross-border strikes and hot pursuit because Pakistan views the tribal areas as sovereign territory. Not only is Pakistan a U.S. ally, but there are also serious concerns that too heavy a U.S. hand in the tribal areas will destabilize the government and push more members of Pakistan's military and intelligence communities and civilian population into the extremists' camp.

Thus, the American military is handcuffed in its ability to respond to attacks when the enemy melts back over Pakistan's border. Reluctance to strike in Pakistani territory also prevents the U.S. military from disrupting the enemy's bases and supply lines. The safe havens in northwestern Pakistan give the Taliban and allied groups a virtually untouchable rear area, where they can recruit, arm, train, and infiltrate fighters into Afghanistan.