Alarm bells suddenly went off in government offices from Washington to Ottawa to London to The Hague when Pakistan's newly minted democratic government, after almost nine years of military rule, suddenly closed the border to all NATO resupply traffic to Afghanistan.
NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan are resupplied by endless convoys of trucks that snake over 1,200 miles through Peshawar and the Khyber Pass to reach Kabul and points north and east, and over 600 miles for the more direct route through Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, and Chaman on the border to reach Kandahar and points south and west in Afghanistan.
Oil, food, heavy equipment, hospital supplies — all are trucked at a cost of $1 million a day in Pakistani road tolls.
This was Pakistan's retaliatory action for a U.S. Special Forces raid against Taliban and al-Qaida targets in the lawless tribal border areas. In conjunction with Predator drones that drop precision guided bombs, the raid came up empty, but once again civilians took the hits, including women and children.
Pakistan's new ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, made clear there would be no more Predator bombings or Special Forces raids into the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where Taliban and al-Qaida operate with near-impunity, unless they are done with Pakistan's OK. And Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani made clear this would not be forthcoming.
Cross-border commando raids, Kayani said, only stoked the fires of anti-American resentment, not only in FATA, but throughout Pakistan. Trouble is, Pakistan's new President Asif Zardari had told the Bush administration it would be forthcoming — with a wink and a nod from him, now that he has the same powers as outgoing military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Some U.S. intelligence analysts began to suspect that the Taliban deliberately shows U.S. spies-in-the-sky what could be interpreted as a busy guerrilla venue in FATA, and then makes sure there are lots of women and children at the site when the bomb drops. In World War II, German submarines in the Atlantic, cornered by sonar and depth charges, would release tattered uniforms and detritus to make believe the U-boat had sunk.
There was also a little matter of unpaid border tolls and Washington cut a check for $365 million in record time and traffic resumed bumping along rutted roads through some of the poorest villages on Earth, competing for space with donkey carts and camel-drawn rigs.
Last week's Special Forces surprise attack against a Taliban target was a first for U.S. forces, and also a first for a new Bush administration policy that authorizes operations inside FATA without any green light from the Pakistani side. The United States had grown tired of Pakistani pledges to take care of the Taliban in FATA.
The Pakistani army had also grown tired of taking casualties while fighting their own people. The final straw was a cease-fire order from Kayani during the holy month of Ramadan, which, of course, gave the Taliban time to regroup and plan their next operations with impunity.
U.S. patience was at an end. The Taliban had announced it was planning for a 20-year insurgency campaign to victory while NATO's only member nations doing the fighting in Afghanistan — Canada, Britain, and Holland — said they were authorized by their parliaments for two more years, and then out.
In a country the size of France or Texas, the outgoing NATO commander said the Afghan mission required at least 400,000 troops. Current in-country force: 60,000. The withdrawal of 8,000 U.S. troops from Iraq would allow for the transfer of another brigade to Afghanistan, still a far cry from rock-bottom requirements.
Pakistan is fighting an existential threat comparable to 1971 when Pakistanis lost half their country in a war with India. East Pakistan, separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory, became Bangladesh. This traumatic shock to the body politic also sparked Pakistan's drive for nuclear power.
Now Pakistan is fighting a large-scale insurgency against a wing of the Taliban that has spilled out of FATA into the North-West Frontier province and beyond with attacks on the army's principal ordnance plant and other army installations.
The army has also taken its licks in FATA — 1,400 killed and 4,000 injured. Steeped in infantry and tank-warfare tactics for war with India, the army is ill-equipped for counterinsurgency. It is not ready for low-intensity conflict. And in FATA, the army is seen as an alien force.
For most of its 61 years as an independent nation, the army has been Pakistan's most respected institution, and it has been in power for half the country's lifetime. But polls now show the army as the country's least respected institution after journalists and lawyers.
Shuja Nawaz, the author of a current best-seller on the Pakistani army ("Crossed Swords," Oxford University Press), says there is nationwide turmoil but no real debate on what kind of Pakistan the people want. "The national pastime is the blame game." FATA, he reminds us, became Taliban and al-Qaida territory through half a century of neglect. These tribal areas became the Petri dish for the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for the "education" of young jihadis right out of some 12,000 madrassas, or Quranic schools.
The Pakistani economy is in a free fall with inflation at an official 30 percent, but closer to 60 percent. The average family now spends more than half its income on food.
Almost nine years of military rule spawned some 200 military officers as heads of all major civilian agencies of government.
Kayani has ordered all such officers in civilian endeavors to return to barracks. But it's hard to untangle these links and find suitable civilians to do these jobs, hence a semi-paralyzed bureaucracy.
In authorizing last week's raid into South Waziristan, one of seven tribal agencies on the Afghan border, President Bush was testing the boundaries of the new government — and the authority of Zardari over the army.
In Afghanistan, the future of the Atlantic alliance is at stake. In Pakistan, the state itself is at stake.
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