Pakistan, US undeterred by Afghan setback


Oct 8, 2009
Pakistan, US undeterred by Afghan setback

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - The recent American withdrawal from the strategic Korangal Valley in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar was largely seen among the old-guard mujahideen as a replay of the Soviet withdrawal from that area in 1986.

After the Red Army left the valley, the mujahideen, operating from their bases in the Pakistani tribal areas of Bajaur and Mohmand directly across the border, had a free hand. They subsequently opened up a path all the way to the Taghab Valley in Kapisa province that eventually led to the mujahideen attacking the capital, Kabul. Within three years, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of American forces from Korangal Valley is a direct result of the failure of the Pakistani armed forces to tame militants in Mohmand and Bajaur, where as in the 1980s, they have vital bases in support of the struggle across the border.

In August 2008, Pakistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched a joint military campaign, "Operation Lion Heart", with the Pakistanis concentrating on Bajaur and Mohmand and NATO targeting Nuristan and Kunar in Afghanistan.

After eight months the operation was declared a success, but it soon became apparent that the militants had simply dispersed into the Hindu Kush mountains and after a few months they came back with renewed vigor and by November 2009 had forced NATO to withdraw from three of its four main bases in Nuristan.

Pakistan launched another operation in that month and claimed that all of the Taliban's top commanders had been killed. This was not the case and the militants fought on, culminating in the American pullout from the Korangal Valley.

"The reason for the failure of Pakistani troops in the tribal region is their naivety," a senior United States official told Asia Times Online in Islamabad. "There is no doubt that the Pakistan army is fighting against the militants with maximum conviction. Their earlier mindset has very much changed, before they thought of the militants as their boys who could be tamed at any time.

"Former president [General Pervez] Musharraf's unpopularity was very heavy baggage for the military and after his departure [August 2008], by which time the militants had expanded their presence up to Swat and Buner, the Pakistan army had become such a joke that the military leadership decided to restore its image at all costs, and so they went very hard against the militants. For us [the US] this was a big change. Now they consider the militants as a bigger threat than we do," the official said.

"Now the problem is not a lack of conviction but a lack of professionalism. For example, we are blamed for drone attacks and for the collateral damage they cause. Drone attacks might be killing a few additional people, but when the Pakistan army conducts operations in the tribal areas they unnecessarily turn whole areas into rubble.

"Undoubtedly they routed the militants, but in the process there is no place for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people to come back. That is one example of their non-professionalism. Now they are asking us to provide the money for rehabilitation work and delays are allowing the militants to come back," the official said.

Despite this view, relations between the Pakistan military and the US are at an all-time high, with unprecedented levels of coordination.

The US official also had his views on the arrest in February of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's supreme commander in Afghanistan. He was appended in the Pakistani port city of Karachi during a raid by Pakistani and US intelligence officials.

"The Pakistan army's mental block about the Afghan Taliban is still there. They still believe them as their connection in Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar's arrest was not deliberate, it was a mistake," the official said.

"At the time of Baradar's arrest, all the [Pakistani] bosses [chief of army staff and director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence] were in Brussels. We got a hint that somebody very important was lurking in Karachi. We informed them [Pakistanis] and jointly we went there. At the time of the arrest neither we nor the Pakistanis were aware that they had rounded up Baradar," he said.

"It is quite possible that he will be disconnected from the Taliban, but he has not been useless. We knew that Baradar had treasures of information so we used our rapport with Pakistan and now we are getting access to Baradar and are getting precious information from him," the official said.

After being joined in an often stormy marriage of convenience in the "war on terror" for nearly a decade, Washington and Islamabad are now beginning to trust one another. Pakistan is ready to give up its concerns and fully facilitate the American war in Afghanistan and the Americans have overcome their worries that Pakistan will use US military aid against India.

On Tuesday, Pakistan and United States signed a US$65 million contract in Washington for the transfer of the USS McInerney. The contract for the "hot transfer" of the Perry-class guided-missile frigate was signed by senior officials of the two countries. Under the agreement, the Pakistan navy will take over the vessel on August 31.

The sale of the frigate, which will be inducted into the Pakistan navy as PNS Alamgir at a ceremony in the US, was approved by the United States Congress in September 2008.

Commissioned in 1979, the frigate will be handed over after a refurbishment that includes anti-submarine capability that has been paid for with the foreign military aid provided by the United States to friendly countries.

The successful conclusion of this contract will pave the way for the acquisition of more vessels of the same class. Pakistan is designated a major non-NATO ally and is able to receive older unneeded US military equipment. The US is also expected to transfer some technology related to unmanned drones.

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