Pakistan Helping Taliban, Despite Denials

Many Canadians were indignant last week when Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, belittled Canadian casualties in Afghanistan.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 16, 2006

Many Canadians were indignant last week when Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, belittled Canadian casualties in Afghanistan.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 16, 2006

Pakistan Helping Taliban, Despite Denials

Many Canadians were indignant last week when Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, belittled Canadian casualties in Afghanistan. "You suffer two dead and you cry and shout all around the place that there are coffins," he told the CBC, underestimating Canadian military losses at the time by 34. "Well, we have had 500 coffins." However, it is not what Musharraf says, but what he does - or more accurately, doesn't do - that should arguably draw the greater wrath of Canadians.

More than 2,000 Canadian soldiers are currently serving in Afghanistan, where they have come under increasingly frequent attacks from Taliban fighters. Afghan President Hamid Karzai accuses Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to shelter and regroup in Pakistan before launching fresh attacks in Afghanistan. Musharraf hotly denies these allegations and claims his country is leading the war against the Taliban and related extremists. Despite recent efforts by President George W. Bush to reconcile the two leaders, both of these men cannot be telling the whole truth.

According to Robert Templer, Asia program director for the International Crisis Group, which employs several analysts in Pakistan and has conducted extensive research in the country, Karzai's version of events is accurate, and Musharraf is - at best - a Taliban appeaser. Templer says that in 2001, Musharraf decided he could not afford to oppose the United States in its confrontation with the Taliban, and made a strategic decision to turn his back on the Taliban - a view essentially confirmed by him in his new autobiography.

But Musharraf and other Pakistani military leaders, Templer says, "also believed that the United States would lose interest in Afghanistan and would eventually go on to other things, and they wanted to maintain a foothold in what they more or less regard as a vassal state. They've done that through the Taliban. And while Musharraf tries to maintain deniability, the reality is you've got Taliban commanders living in Quetta. Quetta is a garrison town. It has a huge military presence. The idea that they could be there without the blessing of the Pakistani military is just absurd."

This assessment got support last week when a paper written by a researcher at the British Ministry of Defence was leaked, publicizing the author's views that Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, has indirectly helped the Taliban by backing religious parties, and recommended that it be disbanded. British Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly moved to assure Musharraf that the leaked paper did not reflect the views of the British government. Both President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen HARPER have been similarly conciliatory toward Pakistan, calling the country a key ally in the fight against terrorism.

"Their view is that Musharraf is the indispensable man, and they don't want to put too much pressure on him," Templer says. "They've bought into the myth he likes to promote, that nobody can put pressure on him from outside because he's in this very vulnerable spot, and he's the only person who stands between the mullahs and the bomb. This is utter nonsense." Templer argues that the greater threat to Musharraf's rule comes not from Islamists but from secular democrats.

Musharraf's defenders - and there are several among Asia analysts - agree that the Taliban might find shelter in Pakistan, but they say this is despite the sincere efforts of Musharraf and the Pakistani military to deny it to them. "There is certainly some significant support for the Taliban on the Pakistan side of the border, in Waziristan particularly, and the Pakistan government hasn't controlled it," says Robert Bradnock, a senior research fellow in geopolitics at King's College London. "But that is not the same in my view as saying that the Pakistan government actively wills it and is supporting it in any way."

Taliban activity in Pakistan is centred in a region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan and are predominantly inhabited by Pashtuns, an ethnic group with extensive familial and tribal links to Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Most Taliban are also Pashtuns. The region has "semi-autonomous" status within Pakistan and is largely controlled by tribal chiefs. It is a difficult place to visit, although this writer was there in 2000. My travel companion and I hired a gunman and a guide and drove west out of Peshawar. The villages close to the Afghan border were full of smugglers' bazaars and makeshift weapons factories, where everything from assault rifles to one-shot pistols disguised as pens were produced and the air constantly echoed with gunfire as products were tested.

The shops were likewise full of guns and drugs, although Islam's disapproval of alcohol was evident even among the smugglers. After displaying a block of hashish roughly the size of his head, one man avowed that he had something even more shocking to show, and reached into a secret compartment hidden beneath a carpet to produce a bottle of whisky. There was no evidence of Pakistani government authority in these villages - only sprawling walled compounds owned by local strongmen.

By all accounts little has changed. The Pakistani army has made incursions into the tribal areas in the years since the 9/11 attacks and has suffered hundreds of casualties, but the government never established control over the region. According to Sergei Plekhanov, a political science professor at York University, Musharraf fears that an outright assault would antagonize the Pashtuns and jeopardize Pakistan's security by creating enemies along its western border. For a military man like Musharraf, such a move would be political suicide.

Instead, this summer, Pakistan signed a truce with pro-Taliban Pashtun "tribal leaders" in Waziristan. Pakistan promised to ease its military activity in the region if gunmen - accurately labelled Pakistani Taliban by some - agreed not to attack Pakistani soldiers or cross the border to attack coalition troops, including Canadians, in Afghanistan.

The deal might have protected Musharraf, but it has proven to be a farce on the ground. American military commanders report that attacks on the Afghan side of the border have tripled in some areas, despite the alleged truce, and Canada lost more soldiers in September than in any previous month. According to Waziri tribal elders interviewed by the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, the Taliban's fugitive commander Mullah Mohammed Omar personally endorsed the truce and asked tribal leaders in Waziristan to agree to it. "There is no reason why [the Taliban] shouldn't be celebrating, because they've essentially been given control of a fairly large area on the border and have been told that they're not going to be under any pressure from the Pakistani military," Templer says.

The balance of evidence suggests, therefore, that Pakistan, a country that receives millions of dollars worth of aid from Canada, has allowed a sanctuary to exist for the same Taliban who are killing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Canada's response has thus far been muted, at least in public. For five years, Western leaders have avoided putting overt pressure on Musharraf out of fear that Musharraf has only a tenuous hold on power and the alternatives to his rule in Pakistan would be worse. With Canadian soldiers dying because of Musharraf's inaction and compromises, now might be a good time to put that theory to the test.

Maclean's October 16, 2006