Leading Article: A question of tribal loyalties

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The Independent Online

Tuesday's air strike by US forces on a Taliban target on the Pakistan border illustrates the complexities and hazards of the military situation there. While the strike appears to have killed eight Taliban militants, it also wiped out 11 Pakistani troops in the area. The Pakistan army has described the strike as a "cowardly attack", and is threatening to break off military co-operation with the US in protest.

At the heart of the problem is the weakness of the Pakistani state. Islamabad exercises very little administrative control over the tribal areas on its western border, and local leaders there are sympathetic to their fellow Pashtuns in the Taliban. The result, as the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, often points out, is that Taliban militants can find shelter across the border with ease.

The Pakistani army is supposed to be leading the fight against the Taliban on its territory. And some elements certainly are; Pakistan has lost some 1,000 men in the conflict. But there are also serious doubts over the extent to which certain commanders have turned on their old Taliban allies from the era of the Soviet invasion. Washington has growing doubts about the reliability of its ally too. The State Department criticised a recent peace agreement between Islamabad and the tribal regions, which it regards as ceding too much autonomy to elements assisting the Taliban.

The US presidential candidate Barack Obama has spoken about his willingness to step up US raids across the border to pursue the Taliban and its al-Qa'ida affiliates. Yet sporadic American strikes across the border only inflame the situation. They also antagonise wider Pakistani public opinion, particularly when innocents are killed. Pakistan's borders might be ill-defined, but its people recognise when their nation's sovereignty has been breached. America cannot afford to alienate Pakistan if it is to have any chance of securing its objectives in Afghanistan.

The best hope lies in the formation of a government in Islamabad able to exert greater authority over the country's western borders. Here the prospects are not as bleak as they were a year ago. President Musharraf is weakened, probably fatally, after the People's Party prevailed in the parliamentary elections earlier this year. The nationwide demonstration by Pakistan's lawyers this week keeps up the pressure on him to quit. The rest of the world, particularly the US, should add to that pressure.

The new government needs to undermine the popular support for the Taliban in the tribal regions and to police the border more effectively. This will not be easy, but only an administration untainted by decades of co-operation with the Taliban and unconstitutional military rule has a hope of achieving this. The road to security in Afghanistan leads through democracy in Islamabad.