Patrick Cockburn: Pakistan won't act against the Taliban

Most Pakistani soldiers see the Afghan Taliban as Pashtun freedom fighters combating a foreign occupation

Share
Related Topics

Pakistan has highlighted the hold it has over the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan by stopping their supply trucks from crossing the Afghan frontier. The ban is in retaliation for US helicopters making an attack on the Pakistani side of the border and killing three Pakistani soldiers.

The US is making a somewhat desperate attempt to close down the Afghan Taliban's bases on the Pakistani side of its 2,500km-long border with Afghanistan. The US military's hope of a year ago that a surge in troop numbers inside Afghanistan would turn the tide in the guerrilla war is fading fast. The Taliban have extended their grip in the north and west of the country. The one option left to America and its allies is to try to force the Pakistan army to act decisively against the Taliban in Pakistan.

It is not going to happen. The Pakistan military has become adept over the past decade at outmanoeuvring Washington on this issue. The Taliban were very much Pakistan's creation in the 1990s, though the relationship has been more distant since 9/11. The army has no interest in putting the Taliban permanently out of business and thereby lose Pakistan's main lever over America.

It is reasonable enough for Pakistan to claim that it could not close the Afghan-Pakistan frontier that runs through some of the toughest terrain on earth and is the same distance as between London and Moscow. If the US, with its massive airpower, cannot shut its side of the border, how come the Pakistani army is expected to be more effective on the Pakistani side? Whatever the direct role of Pakistan in sustaining the insurgency in Afghanistan, the bottom line is the same for the US and its allies now as it was for the Soviet Union in the 1980s. So long as the border with Pakistan remains at least partly open, the insurgents cannot be defeated.

One comic aspect of Pakistan shutting down Nato's supply line through the Khyber pass is that the Taliban themselves may not be too pleased to see the ban go on too long. A senior Pakistan officer told me last week in Islamabad that he reckoned that the Taliban received a large part of the $1,500 protection money paid by trucking companies for every one of the 1,000 or so trucks entering Afghanistan each day with supplies for US and Nato forces. This type of extortion may be as important to the Taliban's revenues as the heroin trade.

Local bandits have also been happy beneficiaries of the 80 per cent of supplies for foreign forces in Afghanistan which come through Pakistani ports and are then driven north to the border. These are supposedly non-lethal goods such as fuel, spare parts and clothing. But raids on warehouses in Peshawar by Pakistani security a few days ago discovered two Nato helicopters waiting for a buyer. Locals tell with some merriment of another looted container that turned out to be entirely filled with whisky bottles. Religiously inclined bandits briefly thought of destroying the cargo, but were swiftly convinced by fellow villagers that it would all be sold to non-Muslims.

David Cameron accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban during his trip to India several months ago and was criticised for his lack of diplomacy. In this minor row the point was lost that the Pakistan and the Afghan insurgency are effectively joined at the hip. The Pakistani army may squeeze the Taliban but it will never squeeze them to death as the Americans want.

It will not do so because the Afghan Taliban are popular in Pakistan. Most Pakistani soldiers I spoke to were happy to fight the Pakistan Taliban, whom they denounced as parasitic on the reputation of their Afghan equivalents. They see the latter as Pashtun freedom fighters combating a foreign occupation and battling for a share in power against their non-Pashtun rivals such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. A Pakistani colonel commanding Pashtun troops on the border wondered how American and British troops could conciliate Pashtun villagers since "xenophobia is at the heart of Pashtun culture".

A second reason why the Pakistan military is unlikely to attack the Taliban is that we may be seeing the opening moves in the endgame in Afghanistan. The four main players are the US, the Afghan government, the Taliban and Pakistan. If the Pakistani army plays its cards right, then the outcome of any successful peace negotiations would be a power-sharing government in Kabul in which the Taliban would play an important role. Pashtun provinces would come under substantial Taliban control. Pakistan, with its strong influence over the Taliban, would be established as a regional power.

The American drone attacks on North Waziristan are at a level higher than at any time since they started in 2004. The killing of senior members of al-Qa'ida is triumphantly announced. But the border areas of Pakistan-Afghanistan are an unlikely area from which to mastermind a plot to bomb targets in Europe. There are checkpoints on all the roads in and out of the area. Strangers are closely watched. Jihadi fighters are much more likely to make their way overland to Somalia.

The mess which is American and British strategy in Afghanistan is exemplified by the ease with which the supplies of their forces can be choked off by Pakistan. The Pakistani army, which controls foreign and security policy in the country, is not going to kill off the Taliban at the request of the US. The Hamid Karzai government has less support than the communists at the time of the Soviet military withdrawal in 1988. The US and Britain are politically weak because they have such a feeble Afghan partner in Kabul and militarily weak because they cannot shut the Pakistan border. They have no choice but to negotiate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future