Patrick Cockburn: Help from Pakistan is more significant than military action

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The support of Pakistani military intelligence has always been crucial for the Taliban, which is why the arrest of several of their senior leaders in Pakistan is so important. If Pakistan has decided to co-operate more closely with the US against the Taliban this could have a critical impact on the war in Afghanistan.

First, there was the arrest of the Taliban's military leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Karachi, then the detention of the Taliban's so-called "shadow governors", of two northern Afghan provinces, Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad. The ease with which these three were picked up underlines the freedom with which the Afghan Taliban have moved around Pakistan. Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence reportedly acted after the US intercepted phone calls which led to a raid on the house where Mullah Baradar was staying. And on Thursday, America flexed its muscles again, with a missile strike in the lawless tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan that killed the brother of a Taliban warlord.

The change in the stance of the Pakistani army towards the US and the Taliban's rebellion in Afghanistan is far more important than the highly publicised military attack on Marjah in Helmand province by American, Afghan and British troops. News reports often refer to Marjah as a "stronghold" and even a "fortress" of the Taliban, but their real sanctuaries have always been in north-west Pakistan. That Mullah Baradar was apparently in Karachi for a meeting of the Taliban leadership shows how confident they were that they would be safe there.

In contrast to events in Pakistan, the importance of the Marjah campaign has been overstated by embedded reporters dependent on the US and British military for information. The very presence of dozens of television cameras and scores of foreign journalists inhibits the use of military force. Employment of air strikes and heavy artillery is curtailed in the knowledge that any large scale killing of civilians will be widely reported. Prisoners are treated with kid gloves.

This caution and moderation is likely to prove atypical in future US-led military actions where the foreign press is absent. In the past, Nato has often responded to claims that villagers have been killed in air-strikes by saying the dead were all Taliban fighters.

The supposedly new US strategy in Afghanistan is to seize ground and hold it, while the Afghan government wins the affection of the people by providing health care, education, clean water and better infrastructure. It will be easier for the US to garrison population centres permanently with the extra 30,000 troops the US is sending.

But, as the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, pointed out in a cable to President Barack Obama last November, the weakness of the strategy is that the Afghan government does not have the means to help its own people by providing better administration, even if it wanted to. The Taliban may not be popular, but neither is the government in Kabul. The Afghan police, their pay doubled to $240 a month thanks to Nato funding, are much hated in the Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan.

At a local level inside Afghan-istan, the loss of Mullah Baradar and other leaders will not greatly affect the guerrillas. Most are fighting in villages and towns where they were born. The use of roadside bombs, though described by the US media as if it was invented in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been a well-tried guerrilla tactic since the 1920s. But overall, the direction of the Taliban war effort, skilfully directed in recent years, may suffer. The first revolt against the mujaheddin government by Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, in 1994, was aided and in part directed from Pakistan, a recruiting ground for many fighters.

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2006 has also been dependent on the safe havens inside Pakistan. Without them, the flow of money and weapons will be more difficult to organise. But the extent to which the Pakistan army is turning on its old ally and withdrawing support is still not clear. It is unlikely to abandon them entirely, and it could just be demonstrating to the US that it will get not anywhere in Afghanistan without help from across the border.