American soldiers have launched a major operation this week that has seen hundreds of US and Afghan troops mass near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, raising suspicions over a possible unilateral military strike in North Waziristan. If undertaken, the assault would end years of frustration with Pakistani military inaction concerning Islamic terrorists who take refuge there after staging hit-and-run attacks against American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Called “Operation Knife Edge,“ the allied forces are deploying right up to the Pakistani border with helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, blocking the main road between the two countries and conducting house-to-house searches. An Afghan Defense Ministry official said the operation was “largely against the Haqqani network,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) and the Afghan security forces’ chief threat in eastern Afghanistan. Last month, Haqqani fighters carried out an assault in Kabul itself that saw the US embassy attacked. They also wounded 21 US troops in a bombing in Wardak province.
“These networks are directly responsible for recent attacks against the people of Afghanistan and coalition forces,” said US captain Justin Brockhoff.
After US Navy Seals flew deep into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden last May at his luxury compound in Abbottabad where he was living undisturbed, the Pakistani government warned the United States not to violate Pakistani sovereignty again. But Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, admits American forces may cross the border during this current operation, but this time to confront the Haqqani organization.
“They [USA] may do it, but they will have to think ten times because Pakistan is not Iraq or Afghanistan,” General Kiyani told the Pakistani politicians on Tuesday.
A story in the Washington Post last month further indicates Operation Knife Edge may extend into Pakistani territory. It states that American government officials warned their Pakistani counterparts a week after September’s US embassy attack that the United States would take unilateral action against the Haqqani network if they did not do so. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters the United States is going “to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces,” which could be interpreted as an ultimatum.
The American government has long been aware of the ties between the Haqqani network and Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and wants these bonds cut. In a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even accused the Pakistanis of waging a “proxy war” in Afghanistan through the Haqqani organization. Mullen told his audience he had had a four hour conversation with Pakistan’s army chief that included discussing “the need for the ISI to disconnect from Haqqani.”
Pakistani officials, naturally, deny any such ties exist. Which is not unexpected from a government that says it did not know bin Laden was living comfortably in its midst for so many years.
North Waziristan is a rugged, mountainous tribal area in north-western Pakistan that borders Afghanistan’s Khost province. The Haqqani network, headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, made its name fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, for which he received American and Pakistani help. Pakistan’s tribal territories also served as his base during that conflict.
Haqqani took part in the civil war in Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out and later sided with the Taliban, becoming a minister in the Taliban government. He fled back to the Pakistani tribal area after the 2001 US-led invasion and resumed guerrilla warfare there, but this time against NATO and Afghan government troops. He also became closely allied with al-Qaeda and may now be sheltering some of its members in North Waziristan.
The Haqqani’s organizational strength is unknown, but it is estimated to be between 5,000 and 20,000 fighters, the uncertainty probably owing to the fact that many could be part-time. It is also unknown how many fighters Haqqani could raise from the local tribes inhabiting North Waziristan. It was reported, however, that Operation Knife Edge has “caused panic” among the tribal militias, and they are gathering in Miranshah, North Waziristan’s capital and Haqqani’s alleged headquarters.
The North Waziristan sanctuary has long been a source of much tension between the United States and Pakistan. American officials have urged the Pakistani government for several years to send its troops into this tribal territory and attack the Haqqani network, like it did to the Islamic terrorist groups in South Waziristan.
But the Pakistani army has continuously refused to do so, saying it is overstretched from those operations, although it somehow has two divisions to spare to send to Saudi Arabia, if that country should ever face internal upheavals or threat of attack (primarily from Iran). The Pakistani government has also constantly stressed that only Pakistan could initiate military action against Islamic extremists on its side of the border.
“Our policy is very clear…Action on Pakistan’s territory is the sole prerogative of Pakistani armed forces,” said a government spokesman in 2008.
But the real reason for Pakistani inaction in going after the Haqqani network is that the Pakistani military sees it as a means to extend its influence into Afghanistan and establish the strategic depth it believes it needs in any future war with India. Its support for the Haqqani network will ensure that Pakistan receives a “stake in any political settlement” in Afghanistan. Just as important, unlike the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Haqqani organization does not attack or want to overthrow the Pakistani state. It carries out its terrorist operations solely on Afghan territory, so it is an Islamic extremist organization the ISI can safely support.
Pakistani leaders most likely believe the United States will not attack because it still needs its help in the War on Terror. NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, for example, run across Pakistani territory. Pakistan also possesses nuclear weapons, which is probably why, when questioned about a possible American incursion, Kiyani answered, “Pakistan is not Iraq or Afghanistan.” They also could be used as a threat, in that they could be “lost” or “sold.”
The Pakistani military, the supporter of the Haqqani network and other terrorist organizations, would be severely discredited by an American invasion that it would not be able to counter. The military has already suffered a huge loss of face among the Pakistani people over the Osama bin Laden incident and the terrorist bombings and attacks on its own army and naval bases. A further shaming may see the Pakistani generals knocked off the prominent perch they occupy in Pakistani society and a more cooperative civilian government empowered that would establish peace with its neighbors and ensure the complete safety of those nuclear weapons.
But more importantly, Pakistan is the headquarters of worldwide jihad. That was made abundantly clear in the case of Osama bin Laden. The threads of many of the world’s terrorist plots also stretch back to Pakistan. So an American invasion of the North Waziristan safe haven would not only improve the security situation in Afghanistan before the scheduled American withdrawal this year by destroying a major terrorist network, but help the anti-terrorism effort worldwide. George W. Bush told the world after 9⁄11: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” By its perfidious actions, Pakistan has proven it has sided with the terrorists and should now finally face the consequences.