September 7, 2008

THE FISH ARE IN THE BARREL:

Right at the Edge (DEXTER FILKINS, 9/07/08, NY Times Magazine)

PAKISTAN’S WILD, LARGELY ungoverned tribal areas have become an untouchable base for Islamic militants to attack Americans and Afghans across the border. Inside the tribal areas, Taliban warlords have taken near-total control, pushing aside the Pakistani government and imposing their draconian form of Islam. And for more than a year now, they have been sending suicide bombers against government and military targets in Pakistan, killing hundreds of people. American and Pakistani investigators say they believe it was Baitullah Mehsud, the strongest of FATA’s Taliban leaders, who dispatched assassins last December to kill Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister. With much of the North-West Frontier Province, which borders the tribal areas, also now under their control, the Taliban are increasingly in a position to threaten the integrity of the Pakistani state.

Then there is Al Qaeda. According to American officials and counterterrorism experts, the organization has rebuilt itself and is using its sanctuaries inside the tribal areas to plan attacks against the United States and Europe. Since 2004, six major terrorist plots against Europe or the United States — including the successful suicide attacks in London that killed 52 people in July 2005 — have been traced back to Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Hoffman says he fears that Al Qaeda could be preparing a major attack before the American presidential election. “I’m convinced they are planning something,” he told me.

At the center of all this stands the question of whether Pakistan really wants to control the Talibs and their Qaeda allies ensconced in the tribal areas — and whether it really can.

This was not supposed to be a major worry. After the attacks of Sept. 11, President Pervez Musharraf threw his lot in with the United States. Pakistan has helped track down Al Qaeda suspects, launched a series of attacks against militants inside the tribal areas — a new offensive got under way just weeks ago — and given many assurances of devotion to the antiterrorist cause. For such efforts, Musharraf and the Pakistani government have been paid handsomely, receiving more than $10 billion in American money since 2001.

But as the incident on the Afghan border suggests, little in Pakistan is what it appears. For years, the survival of Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders has depended on a double game: assuring the United States that they were vigorously repressing Islamic militants — and in some cases actually doing so — while simultaneously tolerating and assisting the same militants. From the anti-Soviet fighters of the 1980s and the Taliban of the 1990s to the homegrown militants of today, Pakistan’s leaders have been both public enemies and private friends.

When the game works, it reaps great rewards: billions in aid to boost the Pakistani economy and military and Islamist proxies to extend the government’s reach into Afghanistan and India.

Pakistan’s double game has rested on two premises: that the country’s leaders could keep the militants under control and that they could keep the United States sufficiently placated to keep the money and weapons flowing. But what happens when the game spins out of control? What happens when the militants you have been encouraging grow too strong and set their sights on Pakistan itself? What happens when the bluff no longer works?


That's when the fun starts. Since it's ungoverned territory we can attack with impunity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 7, 2008 7:57 AM
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