Two days ago, Taliban-affiliated forces launched an attack on the national headquarters of the Pakistani Army. The result was a firefight followed by a standoff with hostages that ended earlier today. This attack represents a game-changing moment for Pakistan, and by extension for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. Here's why.
In the past,the Pakistani military and intelligence (ISI) establishment have allowed the Taliban considerable freedom of operation inside Pakistan, and either turned a blind eye or provided support to Taliban and Al Qaeda forces operating across the border in Afghanistan who are based inside Pakistan, primarily in South Waziristan.
The toleration of Pakistani Taliban wore thin in May, when Taliban forces seized control of the Swat Valley, ending a truce with the Pakistani government. That action prompted the Pakistani military to engage in an extended campaign over the Summer to unseat them, leading to a formal declaration of surrender by Taliban forces in September. During the course of that campaign, Pakistani forces massed on the border of South Waziristan, the province that is home to the bulk of the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, but never actually went in. Invading South Waziristan would be no small undertaking. There are an estimated 10,000 Taliban fighters in that province, and previous military incursions have been beaten back with significant losses.
Despite the crackdown on the Taliban inside Pakistan, the military and the ISI have continued to allow Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban forces to operate with impunity, presumably as a check on Indian influence in Afghanistan. India's influence is largely in the form of infrastructure investment. Pakistan simply does not have the economic resources to compete on that basis, so it relies on Pashtun proxies. As recently as this past week, in fact, Afghan government sources allege that the ISI was directly involved in a Taliban attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
The assumption by most observers has been that the leadership of the Pakistani military and the ISI -- whose degree of coordination is unclear at the best of times -- believed that they could adequately contain Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda forces while still tolerating (or supporting) Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other extremist forces operating in Afghanistan. And not necessarily only in Afghanistan. There were widespread reports of a past relationship between the ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jumat-ad-Dawa, the group(s) that launched bloody attacks in Mumbai last year. (The precise relationship between LeT and JaD is unclear.) When and to what extent that relationship was terminated is a matter for speculation; India, for one, continues to assert that these groups have direct ISI support.
All of this created significant strains on the US-Pakistan alliance, a relationship that was strained further by allegations by two Pakistani generals that out of $6.6 billion in US military aid to Pakistan, only about $500 million ever reached the army. That allegation, in turn, led directly to the latest straw to strain the back of US-Pakistani cooperation. Last week the U.S. Congress approved yet another aid bill to Pakistan, for $7.5 billion, co-authored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar. This time the idea was to correct past mistakes; the bill included specific benchmarks, oversight of expenditures, and a requirement that the Pakistani military take action against Taliban and other extremist forces. By what may have been an unfortunate bit of timing, the bill arrived at a time when there was already controversy in Pakistan over the increasingly large American footprint, exemplified by the construction of a massive new embassy compound in Islamabad. The response was a political uproar. Military officials publicly condemned the bill as American meddling in Pakistani security, opposition politicians used it to renew their characterization of President Zardari as an American puppet.
Much of this is simply internal politics rather than a disagreement over strategic goals. The military's objections to the U.S. bill, in particular, may be taken as much to be a message to the civilian government not to imagine that it has control over the military as an actual objection to the idea of using U.S. aid to increase operations against the Pakistan Taliban. But the U.S. aid bill specifically called on the Pakistani military to dismantle outposts in southwestern city of Quetta (Balochistan) -- where U.S. officials say Afghan Taliban leaders are based - and the eastern town of Muridke (East, near Lahore -- see map here.) These are locations far from Waziristan; Quetta has been the base for attacks into Afghanistan, and Muridke is considered the home base of the two groups mentioned above, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jumat-ad-Dawa. Thus the military's objections to being asked to take action against these targets may reflect something deeper and more troubling than a desire to establish a domestic political position.
But all of this may have changed this past week. The attack on the military headquarters two days ago was the third attack in the past two weeks -- the other two were a bombing of the U.N. food program in Islamabad that killed 5 and a bomb in a Peshawar market that killed 49. These attacks were understood to be warnings designed to discourage the Pakistani government from proceeding with an invasion into South Waziristan. Instead, after the Peshawar bombing Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared that the government has "no choice" but to proceed with its operation. He now describes the operation as "imminent," and supporting air strikes have already begun.
In other words, the strategy of containing Pakistani extremist forces while giving free rein to those operating elsewhere has come unraveled. The potential game-changer, then, would be a monumental strategic blunder by Taliban forces that could force the Pakistani military and intelligence forces to look beyond South Waziristan and abandon their strategy of toleration for extremist groups. All along, the question has been whether Pakistan's military, its intelligence establishment, and its government -- each individually and independently -- had the will to commit to an all-out conflict with extremist forces. This week's attacks may have gone a long way to settling that question, at least in the short term.
That does not mean we can assume that the army or the ISI will become all-out allies in America's conflict for the long term. One of the concerns about the attack on the military headquarters is the fact that the attackers were wearing military uniforms, and appear to have passed through an area with a heavy presence of security checkpoints. There is concern, therefore, that they may have had help from inside. For that matter, there have been concerns for a long time about elements within the Pakistani military that are sympathetic to the Taliban, and the same is true of Pakistani intelligence. That means that a serious confrontation with Taliban forces might have yet another dimension for the military -- an internal one. Which is yet another tall order.
Nonetheless, right now it appears that the game has significantly changed. This is a moment the Obama administration needs to take advantage of as it conducts its strategic review. It's not "Afghanistan," it's the "Af-Pak" theater -- if not the "Af-Pak-India" theater -- and right now it looks as though Pakistan is about to emerge as its central front.