Pakistan’s inaction against the network of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the most effective of Afghan Taliban groups and which operates out of North Waziristan tribal area, is a constant irritation in relations between Washington and Islamabad, with senior United States military officials even accusing the Pakistanis of having ties with the group.
However, Pakistan has made it clear to Washington through diplomatic channels and most recently during this weekend’s visit to Pakistan of US special AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke that every sacrifice has a price tag. Islamabad argues that if it is to launch a major military offensive in North Waziristan against militants, including al-Qaeda, the monetary costs will be high, as will the risk of a militant backlash across the country. The war itself could also drag on for many months.
The US is desperate that militant bases in North Waziristan be destroyed as these feed directly into the ever-growing insurgency across the border in Afghanistan. As the Americans see it, without an operation in North Waziristan, the chances of US troops beginning a withdrawal by next summer are slim.
A major offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar province has already been delayed for another few months, in part pending Pakistani action in North Waziristan. All that Islamabad will say is that while it is committed to an operation, it will do so at a date of its convenience.
This is despite the fact that Pakistan’s political government and security apparatus are as a whole very much onboard with American policies.
Pakistan‘s position comes at an awkward time for Washington. Many of its allies in Afghanistan, including Britain and Canada, aim to distance their troops from hot fronts such as Kandahar.
United States Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen has expressed his exasperation; he is one of those to have alleged that Pakistan has ties to Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Before the arrival in Pakistan of Holbrooke, who was accompanied by Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs David Lipton, Islamabad had made it clear to Washington that it would need military hardware worth US$2.5 billion to launch an operation in North Waziristan.
Speaking to The Washington Times, Pakistani ambassador in Washington Husain Haqqani said the equipment was needed to take the war against al-Qaeda into the mountains bordering Afghanistan. He said Pakistan required new helicopter gunships, including the Apache-64-D, AH-1W, AH-6 and MD-530 Little Bird.
Haqqani said utility and cargo helicopters such as the UH-60 Black Hawk, the CH-47 D Chinook and the UH-1Y Huey would also be required. He pointed out that Pakistan only had eight second-hand Mi-17 transport helicopters at its disposal. Two separate demands were conveyed to Washington through public forums as American demands for an operation mounted.
On Thursday, the Public Accounts Committee said 170,000 soldiers were deployed on the Afghan border. However, a close friend of army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Secretary of Defence Lieutenant General (retired) Syed Athar Ali, told the same meeting that if Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money was not released, the troops at the Afghan border would be pulled back.
Ali added that Pakistan had spent an additional 10 billion rupees (US$117 million) moving the army to the border areas and needed to be compensated for this from the CSF.
Diplomatic contacts tell Asia Times Online that Pakistan has also told Washington that if the Americans want to take surgical strikes against militants like Sirajuddin Haqqani, they can go ahead.
The impasse between Pakistan and the US over North Waziristan comes at a time that both sides are having a rough ride at the hands of insurgents.
A United Nations report released this weekend gave a grim picture of the security situation in Afghanistan, saying roadside bombings – up an “alarming 94% – and assassinations – up 45% – had soared in the first four months of the year.
UN officials said the number of coordinated attacks had also increased, with an average of two per month, about double last year’s average. Coalition casualties are rising, with at least 53 troops killed this month, including 34 US service members.
Across the border, despite intense military operations in Orakzai Agency, South Waziristan and Mohmand and Bajaur tribal areas, militants have made a comeback. In the past week, they have attacked military positions in Mohmand and Bajaur. In one unconfirmed incident, reports said several soldiers were killed and 54 others were missing.
Security officials who spoke to Asia Times Online believe that the next few months will be critical for the US if Pakistan does not begin an operation in North Waziristan within a few weeks.
If the North Waziristan operation is delayed for a few more months, it is unlikely the Kandahar offensive will be effective, while the Taliban are strengthening in Helmand and, Kabul and Uruzgan provinces, besides Khost, Paktia and Paktika (bordering North Waziristan and South Waziristan) and Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar in the east.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to visit Pakistan next month for another round of dialogue in which officials are likely to address Pakistan’s strategic as well as economic interests. There could be some fiery exchanges.