The fight against the Taliban in the territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border appears to be entering a critical phase. Special Operations Forces of the United States have already carried out at least one ground incursion into South Waziristan. This operation was evidently conducted following an order by President George W. Bush in July, authorising such attacks on militant strongholds in the tribal belt of the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan. The order apparently enjoins the commanders of the attacking forces to inform, but not seek the approval of, their Pakistani counterparts. While the Central Intelligence Agency has been using pilotless aircraft to bomb militant targets on the eastern side of the Durand Line for quite some time, the decision to use the infantry in addition is significant on several counts. It shows that Washington has set aside its policy of relying solely on Pakistan soldiers for ground operations in the tribal belt. There is a certain degree of anonymity that cloaks raids by drones. Yet, questions of sovereignty are inevitably brought sharply into focus when men in uniform cross into territory without the approval of the government to which it belongs. The Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani has reacted angrily to the reports of the authorisation of ground operations in Pakistan by U.S. troops and warned that his forces would resist these incursions at all costs. Yet fears about the consequences of the fallout of a possible clash between the forces of the supposed allies may be unfounded given the paucity of Pakistani troops in that tribal belt.
With U.S. officials hinting that key decision-makers in Islamabad had been consulted before the tactics were changed, there is speculation about President Asif Ali Zardari’s approach to the issue. At a joint press conference with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai soon after he was sworn in, Mr. Zardari expressed his determination to act against terrorist groups active in the tribal belt. What lends credibility to his assertion is the fact that the democratic forces in Pakistan are in direct competition with the extremist groups for the allegiance of the masses. The civilian leadership in Islamabad does not have the wherewithal to take on the militants especially in view of the strong client-patron nexus that exists between the militants and the military establishment. Given the sensitive issue of sovereignty, Mr. Zardari cannot openly support the change in U.S. tactics. But he has the advantage of being able to democratically mobilise the moderate majority against extremists who care little for the rights of anyone else.