The covert understanding between the Pakistani government and NATO/ISAF in Afghanistan regarding direct U.S. military action in Pakistan’s tribal areas is hardly a secret anymore. Officially, the Pakistani government forbids foreign troops from conducting military operations on its soil, whereas in reality many U.S. missile attacks are coordinated with Pakistan beforehand. At times, it appears that the United States acts without informing Pakistan, but the Pakistani government always claims otherwise in order to protect its domestic credibility (The News, June 20). The unraveling of this relationship could not have occurred at a worse time for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as he currently faces the toughest challenge of his presidency in the shape of growing political unrest in the country. Two aerial attacks last week in Pakistan’s Waziristan region illustrate the complexities involved in fighting the Taliban insurgency.
On June 19, about two dozen people were killed when a missile hit a madrassa in Datakhel area of North Waziristan agency (Dawn, June 20). Pakistani Army spokesperson Major General Waheed Arshad was quick to declare that “a group of militants were making explosives and there was an explosion,” giving the impression that it was an accident at a terrorist training facility. The coalition spokesman in Kabul, Colonel David Accetta, confirmed that “we have no indications that we have fired anything across the border into Pakistan.” In a matter of hours, however, it became obvious from press reports that a missile strike had occurred.
The second incident occurred on June 24 near the shared border. NATO spokespersons confirmed that their forces unknowingly tracked rebels into Pakistani territory and killed more than 10 civilians. While apologizing for the loss of innocent lives, a NATO spokesperson clearly maintained that “the strikes had been carried out in coordination with the Pakistani military” (The News, June 25). Pakistan quickly denied this, but few are ready to believe it—this is most likely a reflection of diminishing public trust in Musharraf’s government.
Demonstrating Musharraf’s domestic struggles, two mullahs allegedly aligned with Musharraf and the military delivered synchronized statements after these attacks. Maulana Abdul Aziz, of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), who has lately made a name for himself through daytime kidnappings, asked the youth of the country to prepare for jihad, and he also called on the government to be mindful of Islamic honor and give up its cooperation with the United States (Khabrain, June 25). Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam took a similar line (Khabrain, June 25). A notable Waziri tribal elder, Malik Sher Khan, however, offered a more independent view when he blamed the Pakistani government for its dual policies in the tribal region and accused it of supporting pro-Taliban groups for its political agenda (Frontier Post, June 25).
The positions of Musharraf and of NATO are divergent. If Pakistan and NATO cannot coordinate basic official statements, what can be expected of them in terms of joint military operations and cooperation vis-à-vis intelligence sharing and sensitivity to each other’s core concerns? Taliban ascendance and their expansionist designs are too serious of a matter to be left to military commanders in the field. A political dialogue involving all major stakeholders in the area might open new avenues to fight this growing problem and help develop levels of trust between Pakistani and NATO forces.