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Playing with Fire on the Pakistani Border

September 11, 2008

Following Lisa’s post on Harper’s promise to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan in 2011, I thought I would mention some recent events in neighbouring Pakistan that might change the strategic picture for better or worse.

American forces operating in eastern Afghanistan have long been frustrated by the ability of militants to launch attacks and then retreat to the relative safety of tribal-controlled areas on the Pakistani side of the border. Recently, however, the Americans have become much less inhibited about carrying the battle into these regions. Last week they launched a unprecedented ground incursion, and on a few recent occasions they have used drones to launch missiles at targets on Pakistani soil.

It’s interesting to ask why the Americans should suddenly have dropped the gloves. Peter Goodspeed suggests that they may be trying to follow up a Pakistani offensive in the tribal regions that was called off for Ramadan at the beginning of September, or that they may have one eye on the U.S. electoral cycle. Osama bin Laden may be hiding near the border, and wouldn’t it be great to capture him while Bush is still in office?

However, the recent spate of cross-border attacks also roughly coincides with the ascendancy of Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari is relatively pro-American, and apparently willing to crack down on the Islamists and tribal militants in exchange for U.S. military aid. Although Pakistani officials have publicly protested that the cross-border attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, it seems possible that Zardari is being more accommodating in private.

By striking across the border, the Americans hope to deny the Taliban a safe haven and eliminate prominent enemy commanders. This would be rather positive for Canada, if it works, but the strategy is risky. America is not exactly popular in Pakistan, and Zardari himself may prove to be an unreliable or ineffectual partner. His reputation for corruption is such that he was once known as “Mr Ten Percent”, and recently – believe it or not! – he answered corruption charges in a British court by pleading dementia.

Zardari’s attempts to fight what will be perceived as America’s war may only lead to deeper instability and a vicious backlash within Pakistan against both Zardari and America. Pakistan’s tribal borderlands would then surely become a greater, not a lesser, wellspring of resistance to the foreign presence in Afghanistan. Canada could hardly hope to avoid the consequences.


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