Americans have a new strategic plan for the region, said newspapers in Afghanistan recently. For the first time the US has shifted the focus of the "war on terror" to the Pakistani border regions, they explained. This is big news, so when I combed the Afghan press, I expected to find high emotions of fear or joy, indignation or condemnation. I found none. Not even schadenfreude. What I found was a tired sigh of relief: finally, the Americans got it. Got what? That "you can't trust the Pakistani government." That "all suicide attacks that happen in Afghanistan are organised in Pakistan." That "you can't win the 'war on terror' without taking this into consideration." The papers also said President Karzai has been stressing this over the years but his western allies "didn't trust him" and shrugged off the warnings.
The papers were not exaggerating. Official and unofficial Afghan media have been reporting on terrorist camps in Pakistan for many years. Such was the repetitive nature of these reports that one time a colleague of mine fell asleep working on one of them. After being rudely awakened by the sound of our laughter, he said: "Karzai has lost his credibility. To the point that even when he breaks wind, no one bothers to laugh."
In Afghan society, this equates with sinking seriously low. But now that the US seems to have followed Karzai's advice, what is the local reaction? One paper, Mosharekat-e Melli, said: "Western politicians trusted the Pakistani government and because of this trust many opportunities were lost. But there is no doubt that if the situation continues unchanged, terrorists and the Taliban will pay back America not only in Kabul but also in Washington and New York."
Not everyone shared this view. Politician and journalist Abdol Hafiz Mansur told the Payman-e Melli newspaper: "The US's threats to Pakistan will have a lasting negative impact on the relationship between two neighbouring countries that have many communalities. We need to legalise the presence of the foreign troops in Afghanistan to reassure our neighbours that Afghanistan will not become a base from where they'll face threats."
Mansur also said that while the foreign troops are bound to leave the country at some point, the local population will stay. Hence, they must get along with neighbouring countries.
All the Afghan commentators were in agreement that Pakistan needed to be put under pressure to take a clear stance against terrorism. But some, like Mansur, doubted that "sending pilotless planes" and using military means alone is the right approach.
The new US strategy was met with anger in Pakistani tribal areas. At a news conference, Pakistani tribal leaders said if the US continues to take military action, the tribes will attack Kabul. The Afghan government seemed unfazed. The foreign ministry spokesman told a press conference: "I am fully confident that the people in the tribal areas on the other side of the border (ie Pakistan) are supporting the US strategy against terrorism."
But the journalists pressed him. What if they do attack us? Is the government prepared? To this the spokesman replied that "Afghanistan has always been a victim of terrorism and security forces are trying to prevent any terrorist attack in Kabul. In brief, we're used to it and we can deal with it."
Not really, said a Payman-e Melli editorial: "How can a government that is incapable of ensuring the security of its citizens within the limits of the capital city defend the country's borders?"
The paper added that Karzai's insistence that Pakistan is the sole reason for the continuation of violence is to distract from his administration's many shortcomings. The editorial's caption put it neatly: "The new US strategy is not going to save the Afghan government."
An article in Daily Afghanistan had a different take on the tribal leaders' threat. It said the threat is in fact a sign of the weakness of those who are using tribal elders as a "tool" to threaten the US. The bottom line is that tribal leaders have lost both their economic power and social prestige. This is the result of the jihadi wars of the last 30 years which have created a new class of leaders in the humble mullahs of the past. This change, the article says, is irrevocable. Hence, those who rely on the tribal leaders must be seriously desperate.
The view that Pakistani tribal elders were not acting independently was widespread in the Afghan media. Mohammad Asam, an MP from Baghlan, said: "Pakistan has equipped the tribes to wage a war against Afghanistan. This is part of its warmongering policy." Are the tribes a threat? "Only if Afghanistan descends into chaos," he said.
Sayed Mohammad Golabzoy, former interior minister and currently an MP for Urozgan province, said that "when the Pakistani tribes make a threat like this, it's clear that they are not talking for themselves. They are speaking for the Pakistani army." Did he think the tribes are a threat? Not for the international forces in the country, said Golabzoy, but for Afghanistan itself. He explained, "Unfortunately, our army is incapable of reacting to anything that might happen. In fact, we do not have a national army or national police to defend our territorial integrity."
Whether a full war breaks out with the tribes depends on how far the US is willing to take its new cross-border strategy.
This article was first published in the Guardian