Although the Bush administration is focused on planning an entirely new war against Iraq, the battle against al Qaeda and its Taliban allies is far from over. Unfortunately, it isn't likely to end until the U.S. stops allowing western Pakistan to act as a sanctuary for terrorists.
Shortly after Christmas a Pakistani border guard wounded a U.S. soldier on patrol; Islamabad later argued that it might only have been a terrorist disguised as one of its soldiers. Pakistan appeared more concerned that America may have dropped a bomb on its territory when U.S. soldiers called for air support than that one of its own personnel might have aided America's enemies.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf about the incident and the two issued a statement on Saturday that "reiterated the need to further strengthen coordination to ensure that such incidents do not happen in the future." However, such coordination emphatically does not mean allowing American forces to operate in Pakistan.
Said Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed: "Absolutely not. The Americans cannot cross the Pakistani border from Afghanistan to chase what they say are vestiges of Taliban and al Qaeda." Even, apparently, if what they say are vestiges of Taliban and al Qaeda really are vestiges of Taliban and al Qaeda.
Only slightly more supportive was Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri: "From the very first day, it has been absolutely clear and fully understood ... that operations within Pakistani territory would be conducted solely and exclusively by our own forces and in response to decisions taken by Pakistan." At least he didn't seem to doubt that "vestiges of Taliban and al Qaeda" still existed.
Leaving the job up to Islamabad would be fine if Pakistan had lived up to its earlier promise to seal the border. If it really controlled its western provinces. If its armed forces had not been closely linked to the Taliban and other Islamic extremists before September 11. If two of its border provinces had not recently come under control of Islamic hardliners, who released suspected terrorists upon taking office.
And if terrorists running back into Pakistan had not become a constant problem. Shortly before Christmas a group of men crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan, killed a member of the 82nd Airborne near the border, and fled back into Pakistan. Ever since the war began more than a year ago, al Qaeda and Taliban forces have used western Pakistan as a sanctuary.
No wonder, then, for months U.S. commanders have talked of the need for "hot pursuit" into Pakistani territory. American military spokesman Maj. Stephen Clutter even says that U.S. forces "reserve the right to go after [suspected terrorists] and pursue them." But, officially at least, the Pentagon has never done so.
Islamabad's cooperation is obviously critical for American policy in Afghanistan and President Musharraf has taken some chances for backing the U.S. Indeed, opposition members of parliament complained that his officials had downplayed the most recent incident out of fear of the domestic political reaction: "People here were already against our government's policy of allying itself with the United States," said Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of the six-party United Action Forum. "Thanks to developments this week, this attitude has hardened even more," he added.
However, President Musharraf has also reaped significant benefits from cooperation with America: financial aid and political support, despite his dictatorial rule and economic mismanagement. He has also earned a more benign view of Pakistan's backing for violent insurgents in the disputed territory of Kashmir, which has brought it to the brink of war with India.
Moreover, Pakistan has long played both sides. The U.S. funneled aid to the anti-Soviet mujahadeen through the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which backed the most radical Islamic factions, including a much-younger Osama bin Laden.
Islamabad, along with another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, was the primary supporter of the extremist Taliban regime. The government stood by as Islamic madrassahs turned into virulent incubators of anti-Western hatred. Persecution of Christians is widespread and often aided and abetted by the government, especially through application of a recently passed anti-blasphemy law.
Shortly after the U.S. initiated hostilities against Afghanistan, the ISI apparently spirited numerous al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers back to Pakistan. Suspicions abound that friendly ISI officials have protected as well as arrested al Qaeda operatives.
Most important, Islamabad seems to be maintaining its traditional "hands-off" role in the Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. One diplomat in Kabul told the Washington Post: "A year ago, Pakistan had the choice of either acting decisively against al Qaeda and Taliban elements or of doing the minimum. By now, it's clear they have decided not to move strongly against them."
Doing so would obviously create political dangers. But not doing so is risky as well.
Allowing Taliban and al Qaeda forces to survive and possibly revive strengthens those Pakistani factions most opposed to the Musharraf government. Moreover, not allowing the U.S. military to destroy terrorist elements inevitably lengthens the conflict, confronting the Musharraf government with even more tough political decisions over a longer period of time.
The task of ensuring al Qaeda's destruction deserves Washington's full attention. Unfortunately, with a bombing in Bali, ship attack off Yemen, shootings in Kuwait, plots thwarted in Europe, antiaircraft missile attack and hotel bombing in Kenya, and al Qaeda operatives arrested in America, it is obvious that the war on terrorism is far from won.
Yet so long as Pakistan, rather like Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War, provides sanctuary for America's enemies, they will be able to fight our troops more effectively and threaten the rest of us more seriously. And as long as al Qaeda and Taliban remnants operate in Pakistan, they will attract more adherents and create another generation of terrorists.
Already, some Pakistanis claim, Islamabad looks the other way if U.S. forces make limited and quick forays into Pakistani territory. If so, Washington needs to expand the deal: it will do whatever is necessary to destroy terrorist sanctuaries while maintaining a discreet silence about such operations.
If incidents nevertheless come to light, the Musharraf government can deny that it gave permission, vigorously protest the action, and demand a fulsome American apology. But it will do nothing to hinder such operations.
Winning the war on terrorism is obviously in America's interest. It is also in Pakistan's interest. Washington must turn its attention back to the war that it has yet to finish and impress upon Islamabad the importance of eliminating any sanctuaries for terrorists.