New Delhi: After a beguiling interval when Pakistan seemed prepared to see its internal challenges as more serious than those on its eastern border, Islamabad has flatly refused to move troops from the Indian front in what looks like a bid to protect the Taliban from a US surge in Afghanistan.
In briefings to prominent US media, Pakistan officials have suggested that the American military surge in Afghanistan — post the review ordered by Barack Obama after he took office — would result in a sharp spillover in Balochistan where an insurgency is already raging.
Containing increased levels of insurgency in Balochistan would require moving troops from the Indian border which was not possible. Invoking its traditional view that India constitutes the bigger threat, Pakistan`s arguments seem aimed at curtailing US action in Afghanistan, something that will give the Taliban a respite. Pakistan has not been able to shake off the impression that it sees Taliban as "allies" in the long run and its latest moves seem to strengthen this view.
The Pakistani spin on the ongoing US operations in Afghanistan reflects a deeply held conviction that the mountainous country must remain under the control of proxies that Islamabad can trust in order to deliver "strategic depth" against India. Pakistan`s military complex also seems to feel that Taliban will ultimately prevail — helped by the refuge and sustenance the jihadis receive in Waziristan and the North-West Frontier Province.
A Pakistani official said, "A Taliban spillover would require Pakistan to put more troops there, troops the country does not have now. Diverting troops from the border with India is out of the question." The significant turnaround comes just weeks after Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Kayani echoed President Asif Ali Zardari in saying that the external threat was less dangerous than the internal one.
Pakistani officials, briefing US journalists, were quoted as saying that negotiating with the Taliban was a better idea for Islamabad than fighting them. The remarks show that no matter how much US tries to portray that the Pakistan army has made a strategic shift on the Taliban, this is not really the case. Even in the case of Swat, held up as Pakistan`s sincere bid to counter jihadis, the Taliban vacated territory and its leaders are still active.
Given the latest Pakistani shift, US demands that India "reciprocate" and be more understanding of Pakistan`s battle with jihadis loses much of its credibility. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton might have said Pakistan was showing "real intent" but sceptics have repeatedly pointed to the need for more verifiable actions from the country.
Earlier this month, Kayani told an officers` commissioning parade of Pakistan Navy in Karachi that the country faced both "external and internal" threats. "While the external threat to Pakistan continues to exist, it is the internal threat that merits immediate attention," said Kayani, according to a military statement. It was terrorism, he said, that "posed a threat to our national security and stability".
The turnaround comes as US and NATO troops embark on an intense battle with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. The Pakistan army is spread across the Swat valley, and is preparing to go into Waziristan. The Swat operations, contrary to public reports, have not gone as well as it should have, because it failed to net the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban.
The newfound desire to negotiate with the Taliban also coincides with the fact that the army now has to get into Baitullah Mehsud territory in south Waziristan. Mehsud is maintaining radio silence, so there is little possibility of the Pakistan army getting him. But given his strike rate, there is every chance of Mehsud wreaking havoc on the security forces.
The US expects Pakistan to follow a hammer-and-anvil strategy in the area and pick off any fleeing Taliban leaders. But the latest Pakistan remarks show the hesitation of the army to go so far against their creation.
Last month, Zardari was quoted as saying in Brussels, "I do not consider India a military threat; the question is that India has the capability. Capability is what matters. With regard to intention, I think we both have our good intentions. India is a reality, Pakistan is a reality, but Taliban is a threat, an international threat... to our way of life. And at the moment, I`m focused on the Taliban. It`s something that has been going on for a long time and of course went unchecked under the dictatorial rule of the last president."