TOPICS > Politics

Attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan Highlight Instability

June 9, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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The newly elected government in Pakistan is being confronted with a rise in insurgent attacks and a Taliban that is increasing in strength along the volatile Afghan border. Two experts discuss the latest outbreaks of violence.
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RAY SUAREZ: First lady Laura Bush’s trip to Afghanistan this weekend — her third since the fall of the Taliban — was shrouded in secrecy. Its goal: to highlight the progress since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

But that progress in the region has been uneven. Three British soldiers were killed in the southern Afghan province of Helmand yesterday. And today in Pakistan, suspected militants killed four policemen near Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar.

The rise in violence was the focus of meetings held by the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan last week.

Afghan leaders have long voiced concern over talks between the Pakistani government and Islamic militants in the border areas of northwest Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Mehmood Qureshi, stressed the talks would not mean security in the region would suffer.

SHAH MEHMOOD QURESHI, foreign minister, Pakistan: We are engaging with that element that is peace-loving, and wants stability in their own regions, and want to live a normal, peaceful life.

We will not engage with terrorists. We will not compromise with terrorists. And those who will pick up arms and guns are neither your friends nor our friends.

RAY SUAREZ: Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, has pushed for the talks to continue. He leads Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. He assumed power in March after striking a deal with the party of former prime minister and Bhutto rival Nawaz Sharif.

Just seven weeks later, Sharif withdrew from the coalition, raising new doubts about Pakistan’s stability. Sharif blamed the split on continued conflict over how to reinstate judges removed by President Pervez Musharraf when he declared martial law last year.

But the issue that’s drawn the most international criticism and dominated last week’s talks is negotiating with Islamic militants.

The U.S. and NATO have pressed Pakistan to do more to fight terror along the border and blame the spike in violence in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s deal with the militants. Last year was the deadliest year yet for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Today, the RAND Corporation think tank said Pakistani intelligence agents and paramilitary forces have helped train Taliban insurgents. RAND also warned the U.S. will face crippling, long-term consequences in Afghanistan if Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan are not eliminated.

General Dan McNeill is the outgoing American commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

GEN. DAN MCNEILL, former commander, International Security Assistance Force: I don’t believe there is sufficient pressure on the terrorists and the insurgents in the sanctuaries that they have that are just out of reach of the ISAF forces. I think that perhaps is the most significant factor.

We’ve also monitored and recorded in the past what happens when there’s peace negotiations, so-called peace negotiations, with these terrorists and extremists inside those sanctuaries. And when there has been, there has been a spike in the untoward events on our side of the border.

RAY SUAREZ: NATO warned attacks were up 50 percent compared to a year ago, and U.S. officials warn this year could set new records.

Experts discuss border region

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we get two views. Xenia Dormandy focused on South Asia at the National Security Council and the State Department during the Bush administration. She's now at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

And Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author and journalist based in Lahore, his latest book is "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia."

Ahmed Rashid, if I asked you to do a quick diagnostic of the state of affairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan today, what would you say?

AHMED RASHID, author and journalist: I think it's a very dire situation. I think Afghanistan is now witnessing perhaps a very serious summer offensive by the Taliban using Pakistanis, Afghans, Central Asians, and there's a huge influx of Taliban into the country.

At the same time, there's a Talibanization process going on in Pakistan. The army is pulling out of the tribal areas. It has ceded a lot of territory to the Pakistani Taliban. And at the same time, we have a domestic political crisis in which the newly elected coalition government -- the parties in that coalition are at odds with one another and with President Pervez Musharraf.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Xenia Dormandy, your assessment of the situation?

XENIA DORMANDY, former National Security Council staff: I think that Ahmed brings up all the right points, but I'm a little less pessimistic in many respects. Yes, there is a coalition government. Yes, they are in conflict with one another; it's a bit like asking the Democrats and the Republicans to work well together.

But they do appear to be moving forward. They do appear to be making some measure of progress, at least with one another in negotiations and finding a way forward. More clearly needs to be done.

Again, there are significant problems on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the FATA, and now in the North-West Frontier Province, the NWFP.

But, again, the military solution that has been attempted by the previous government, that appears to be merging somewhat with a kind of hearts and minds strategy that at least is a new tactic. We'll have to see whether it's successful or not.

New tact amid violence

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just in the last several days, Ms. Dormandy, we've seen suicide bombings aimed at the Danish embassy, a potential suicide bomber seized with one ton of explosives on hand, electricity shortages, the worst in years, music and videos, bombs, shops and stalls bombed in order to get people to stop selling those popular culture items.

Why the upsurge in violence, if these other things are going well, as you suggest?

XENIA DORMANDY: Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say things are going well. I think that new tactics are being tried; that's clearly necessary.

The fight in the North-West Frontier Province, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas has been going on for many years now. And the strategy had been being pursued by President Musharraf, by the Pakistani government clearly wasn't working, so they are trying a new strategy, that clearly you have fundamental problems within Pakistan at the moment.

There isn't going to be a quick solution. So the question is: Can they make small measures of progress?

Though many who believe that engaging with those sections of the militant groups or the terrorist groups in this region that are more willing to lay down arms, that are more willing to engage in a dialogue and, perhaps, if they see the benefits of that dialogue, will continue to engage in that dialogue, that clearly is a new strategy.

I think we have to give it time to see whether it works or not. But that is in no way to dismiss the fundamental problems, whether it's food shortages or there's electricity shortages, whether it's attacks within Pakistan proper.

RAY SUAREZ: Engaging militant groups and giving it time to see if it work, Ahmed Rashid?

AHMED RASHID: Well, you know, the point is that there are two points about the recent deals that the army has conducted with the militants. The first is that they -- the army is ceding territory and control to the militants.

And although the militants may agree to stop suicide attacks or attacks against the Pakistan army and security forces, they are continuing their creeping Talibanization right across the northwest of the country. They're occupying villages; they're moving into towns; they're trying to influence events.

I was in Peshawar just last week. Peshawar is the capital of the North-West Frontier Province. And the government there was saying that there were four militias within 10 miles of the city who -- and these Taliban are coming in. They're kidnapping businessmen for ransom. The security situation in Peshawar to me seemed far worse than Kabul, where I went subsequently.

So the second point is that these peace deals are allowing the Pakistani Taliban -- Pakistani militants, as it were -- to cross over into Afghanistan, join the Afghan Taliban to attack the Afghan government. Now, that is not bringing security to the region at all.

Army, government divided

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ahmed Rashid, is the Pakistani army and government on the same side as the United States in fighting terrorists and radicalism in that part of the world?

AHMED RASHID: Well, I think, you know, there's a real problem, first of all, domestically, because the army was conducting these peace talks and negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban months before the elections took place in February and months before this government came to power.

Now, what happened when this coalition government was formed, the government was elected came to power, it was formed, it was confronted by the army with these kinds of -- a fait accompli, basically, that these deals are done and you have to now accept them.

What the coalition partners in, for example, Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, told me was that the army has not shared any intelligence, any information, any decision-making with the political government.

The political government is far too weak at the moment to resist any of these deals, so there is a division at the moment. I mean, at the moment, it's being papered over. But I think this division between the army and the civilian government could grow.

What the army needs to do is to share decision-making with the political government. In Pakistan, the problem is that the army has for a very long time dominated foreign policy, especially foreign policy towards Afghanistan and India.

What it needs to do now with this new civilian government, the new dispensation, and what the international community needs to do is to encourage the army to give the civilians a say and a stake in what is happening.

Focusing on stability

RAY SUAREZ: Xenia Dormandy, same question. Is the army and the civilian government in Pakistan pulling on the same side as the United States?

XENIA DORMANDY: Yes, I think, in broad terms, clearly they are. You looked at poll results that came out in December, January of this year, and the Pakistani people were saying the second most important thing to them after the economy was security, was stability.

So there's no question that at least the group polled, a broad cross-section of Pakistan, believe that security is a fundamental problem to Pakistan today and a growing problem to Pakistan.

There is, again, no question on the Afghan side that that remains the case, as well. And from the U.S. perspective, we, too, see that security, stability is a fundamental problem.

The question becomes is, where do you prioritize? What do you move on first? And if you have all of these problems, you have these different groups functioning in Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in the FATA, the Pakistan Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, sectarian groups, which ones do you work against first?

And I would posit that it's a pretty good strategy to say, "Well, let's try and split these groups up. Let's try and create a situation where they're not working together, where they're not working arm-in-arm, to the extent that we can get the nonviolent groups or the ones that are willing to lay down violence to move to the side, that will give us a smaller subset that we can really focus on that are violent."

And I think that's what the Pakistani military, what the Pakistani government is trying to do, albeit, in so doing, they perhaps have to sacrifice and move to a second priority for the time being, those individuals, those militant groups, those terrorists who are crossing the border.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, we'll have to end it there. Xenia Dormandy, Ahmed Rashid, thank you both.

XENIA DORMANDY: Thank you very much.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.