DAWN EDITORIAL: New threat of strikes

Friday, 20 Mar, 2009 | 01:18 AM PST

HOPEFULLY better sense will prevail and nothing will come of reports that the US may extend its covert operations in Pakistan beyond Fata to Balochistan. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration has been advised by military commanders to strike Taliban ‘safe havens’ in and around Quetta, which they believe serve as the headquarters of Mullah Omar and a staging post for attacks in southern Afghanistan. Pakistan has long denied such claims. Fortunately not everyone in Washington subscribes to the new policy being proposed by the military brass. One senior official has been quoted as saying that “expanding [the] US role inside Pakistan may be more than anyone there can stomach”. We couldn’t agree more. American strikes in Pakistan violate the country’s sovereignty and give those who are fanning anti-western and anti-Islamabad sentiments even more ammunition. At the same time, the civilian deaths caused by such strikes not only alienate but enrage ordinary tribal people without whose cooperation the war against militancy can never be won.

That said, certain home truths need to be driven home. Pakistan rightly condemns violations of sovereignty but also needs to accept its own shortcomings. While US policy may be misguided, it is the Pakistani state that allowed the sore of militancy to fester and disfigure large swathes of the country. The folly of ‘strategic depth’, a goal that could only be achieved through non-state actors, is one of the root causes of militancy in today’s Pakistan. Guns that once targeted foreign ‘enemies’ now point inwards. Many also believe that the Musharraf regime deliberately kept the threat of Talibanisation alive to convince the West of his indispensability. Militancy spread first from the tribal agencies to the frontier regions (FRs) and then to the settled districts of the NWFP. Taliban-inspired militants can now be found across the country, including the major cities. As for Balochistan, the FC inspector general may be correct in his assessment on Wednesday that the Taliban do not enjoy political or tribal support in the province. That, however, does not mean that there are no Taliban holed up there. It is after all a fact that top Taliban commander Abdullah Mehsud died in district Zhob in July 2007 during an encounter with security personnel.

Drone strikes are a low-cost way of taking out targets without risking American lives. The US top brass thinks it is a successful policy because drone attacks have reportedly made inroads into the Al Qaeda leadership. This is a simplistic assessment and the ongoing strategic review of America’s Afghan policy must take the broader picture into account. Targeting Al Qaeda and the Taliban may be important but it is also critical that America not lose its few friends in this part of the world.

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