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Bajaur bombing highlights conflicting U.S.-Pakistan interests

Last week’s suicide bombing in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to it. The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year. But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents’ ability to flee to Kunar — where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out — combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.

The implications go far beyond Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan until it has secured gains made elsewhere. Pakistani daily The Express Tribune quoted army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as reiterating that point after the Bajaur bombing and after fighting in the neighbouring Mohmand region. Until areas “cleared” by the military were consolidated, “it is impossible to rush into another campaign,” it quoted him as saying.

The Taliban in Bajaur also had historically close ties with militants who overran the Swat valley and caused worldwide alarm by pushing further into Pakistan’s heartland before they were ousted by the Pakistan Army in 2009. Any further evidence of the Taliban regaining ground in Bajaur would therefore be a cause for concern that military gains in Swat — itself reeling from this summer’s devastating floods — could also be reversed.

In some aspects — though not all — Pakistan’s problems in tackling militants are a mirror image of those faced by the United States on the other side of the border. Soldiers can drive militants out of their strongholds, but they can’t stop them melting into the local population or fleeing across the border. And they can’t hold and build on those military gains without civilian back-up to provide people with governance.

When I visited Bajaur on an army-organised trip in April, the military commander in the main town of Khar — target of last week’s suicide bombing — made two points. First he said the Americans had to “do more” on their side of the border to stop militants fleeing into Afghanistan. Second he drew a graph showing how security gains made from military operations do not even remain static without governance, but actually dwindle over time – probably rather similar to graphs drawn by U.S. commanders on the other side of the border.

You might think the answer would be to coordinate approaches in both Pakistan and Afghanistan — a much talked about idea that somehow never quite managed to get off the drawing boards in Washington and into the field. If anything military coordination appears to be getting worse.

The United States, keen to concentrate its forces in areas where they can make a difference, and to protect population centres, has been pulling troops back from remote outposts in Kunar and elsewhere. Within the context of Afghanistan, that may make sense. But from Pakistan’s point of view, it leaves its military exposed. Meanwhile, Pakistan has resisted pressure to launch an operation in North Waziristan, both because it needs to consolidate gains elsewhere, and because it fears a backlash of suicide bombings on its towns and cities. Within the context of Pakistan that may also make sense. But from the U.S. point of view, it leaves its own military exposed.

And neither Pakistan nor the United States has been able to work out how to deliver governance, as both their militaries and the militants compete to win the support of the local people. In Bajaur, people were already complaining about the lack of government support long before the bombing; renewed militant attacks will make it even harder to deliver basic services.

The whole thing is complicated by Pakistan’s own ambivalent approach to some militants, including the Afghan Taliban in the so-called Quetta shura and the Haqqani network. But the situation in Kunar-Bajaur shows that ambivalence is not the only problem, nor perhaps even the primary one. There has been no ambivalence in Islamabad or Rawalpindi towards the Pakistani Taliban. At least 150 Pakistani soldiers died and 637 were injured tackling militants in Bajaur. Yet even there, they are struggling simply to contain them.

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