The Afghanistan Impasse

Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai; drawing by John Springs

On August 5, Baitullah Mehsud, the all-powerful and utterly ruthless commander of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed in a US missile strike in South Waziristan. At the time of the strike, he was undergoing intravenous treatment for a kidney ailment, and was lying on the roof of his father-in-law’s house with his young second wife. At about one o’clock that morning, a missile fired by an unmanned CIA drone tore through the house, splitting his body in two and killing his wife, her parents, and seven bodyguards.

His death marked the first major breakthrough in the war against extremist leaders in Pakistan since 2003, when several top al-Qaeda members based in the country were arrested or killed. Over the last few years, Mehsud’s estimated 20,000 fighters gained almost total control over the seven tribal agencies that make up the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.

Mehsud’s death plunged the Pakistani Taliban, composed of some two dozen Pashtun tribal groups, into an intense struggle over leadership, creating an opportunity for the CIA and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) to take action against the extremists. After ousting in April and May the militants who had seized the Swat valley—which is not in the tribal areas but north of the capital city of Islamabad—the Pakistani army is now pursuing the Pakistani Taliban with more determination: in mid-August, two of Mehsud’s senior aides were arrested, one in FATA and the other in Islamabad while seeking medical treatment. The US is anxious for Pakistan to continue its pressure by launching an offensive in Waziristan, the region in the southern part of FATA—first in South Waziristan to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban there and then in North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders are based.

In North Waziristan two key Afghan Taliban networks—one led by the Pash- tun warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the other by the Muslim extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—have been on the payroll of Pakistan’s ISI since the 1970s and the ISI still allows them to operate freely. Al-Qaeda militants also live in North Waziristan, as do militant groups of Pakistani Punjabis, who launch terrorist attacks in India and Afghanistan.

The key question is whether the Pakistani army and the ISI, which have intermittently supported the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban since 2001, can now make a strategic shift—turning decisively to eliminate not only the Pakistani Taliban but also the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Until now the Pakistani army has considered the Afghan Taliban a strategic asset in its battle against India and other regional rivals for influence in Afghanistan.

Success in eliminating these terrorist networks is vital for the US and the world—even more so now that the rigged presidential elections in Afghanistan in late August have created a deep political and security crisis for Afghans and Western forces there. Every day the evidence of electoral fraud has mounted, with videos posted on…

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