The recent Taliban shoot-down of a Chinook transport helicopter packed with US Special Forces close to the border with Pakistan is prompting the rise of three-way tension among Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States.
At least 16 US Special Forces soldiers were killed in late June when the Chinook was brought down by Taliban fire in a mountain corner of eastern Afghanistan. The shoot-down marked the single deadliest incident in what has been the bloodiest spring and summer in Afghanistan since the launch of the US-led anti-terrorism campaign in 2001. From March through early July, 465 Taliban rebels have been killed in fierce fighting capped by a week long Taliban offensive in mid-June in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. During the last four months, 45 American soldiers, including the 16 killed in the helicopter downing, also have been killed, along with over 40 Afghan soldiers and policemen and 125 civilians.
Many Afghan and some senior American officials insist that the resurgent Taliban are finding sanctuary and support from elements in Pakistan. A war of words erupted between the two countries after Afghan officials directly accused Pakistan of harboring the Taliban. On June 21, US President George W. Bush called the two leaders Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf and persuaded them to declare a ceasefire in their feud. The Chinook incident, however, stands to reignite tension.
In addition to criticism by Afghan authorities, Islamabad appears to be coming under pressure from key Bush administration officials. Both US Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Chief Porter Goss said in public comments made in late June that US forces have a good idea where terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is hiding. Both seemed to be pointing their finger at bin Laden's presence in Pakistan. Islamabad has taken umbrage at the apparent suggestion.
Many regional analysts believe Pakistan's military regime has played a double game with Washington. The Pakistani military has handed over about 700 suspected al Qaeda militants to American officials. It has also suffered roughly 500 casualties in its attempt to bring order to the North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, the Pakistani army seems far less eager to pursue the Taliban. It has not captured a single member of the Taliban's leadership, despite intelligence data that indicates key members of the Afghan radical Islamic movement are operating out of Baluchistan province.
Islamabad considers its alliance with the United States to be short-term in nature, probably lasting only for the duration of the anti-terrorism campaign. Islamabad suspects that Washington's longer-term interests will prompt an increase in American military cooperation with Pakistan's arch-rival, India. Keeping the Americans bogged down in Afghanistan by sustaining the Taliban would thus fulfill the strategic need of perpetuating the US-Pakistani alliance at the expense of India, some regional observers say.
Several factors are influencing Pakistani policy. To begin with, some elements within the Pakistani military, which exerts tremendous force over the policy-making apparatus, appear reluctant to accept the regional geopolitical changes that have occurred since September 11, 2001. The military is keen to maintain its political influence among southern Afghanistan's Pashtun population, something it largely succeeding in doing from 1989-2001, when the Taliban was driven from power by the US-led blitz. Now, Pakistani influence over Pashtuns is being contested by Karzai, himself a Pashtun. Pakistani military leaders are additionally resentful of how India has gained a strategic foothold in Afghanistan, and they want to pressure Karzai to lower India's profile in Kabul.
In the domestic political arena, the Pakistani military works with Islamic parties that are part of the MMA alliance, which governs the two provinces that border Afghanistan, North-West Frontier and Baluchistan. The MMA, in particular the Jamaat-e-Ullema Islam (JUI), has been an avid supporter of the Taliban since the 1990s. By interfering as little as possible with JUI support to the Taliban, Musharraf's administration may be trying to ensure its political survival by keeping Islamic radicals on his side. The military's alliance with conservative Islamic parities also helps assuage Islamist army officers and militant groups fighting in Kashmir.
To date, the United States in its dealings with Islamabad has been largely preoccupied with efforts to find and capture al Qaeda members, including bin Laden. The capture of Taliban members has been a lesser priority for the United States something that has fostered resentment among Karzai and other Afghan government officials. Given the recent growth in Taliban insurgent activity inside Afghanistan, however, US priorities vis a vis Pakistan may shift.
Karzai has long felt that the Taliban, as well as warlords operating beyond central government control, pose the greatest danger to Afghanistan's stabilization efforts. The al Qaeda threat, from Karzai's perspective, has always been minimal. Afghans also see the war in Iraq as extremely dangerous for Afghanistan's future because it continues to divert attention and resources away from Afghan reconstruction efforts, providing the Taliban and the warlords the time and space to reconstitute themselves.
For Karzai the real war on Islamic militancy is still based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the Taliban is active. Prior to the Chinook shoot-down, Karzai had been ineffective in influencing US policy toward Afghanistan. His perceived political indecisiveness at home prompted US officials to discount his views. The loss of 16 US troops in a single day may well prompt the United States to refocus attention on Afghanistan, but it remains to be seen how much Karzai's analysis will guide US policy over the near- and medium-term.
There are now concerns that Karzai's administration will lose political influence in the coming months. Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election in September, and some analysts believe Karzai's political fortunes may be hurt by his inability to forge a clear-cut support base, or to affiliate himself with force capable of opposing and defeating candidates supported by the Taliban, various warlords and drug barons. Thus, the new parliament may very well be hostile to the Karzai administration.
All three countries involved in the Afghan equation have differing interests and capabilities. Rising tension among the three would only benefit Islamic radicals. Unless the trio Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States can harmonize their strategic goals, the region will continue to be beset by problems.