Washington is considering expanding its controversial policy of missile strikes and commando raids deeper inside Pakistan, according to reports this morning.
In what would be a major escalation of the “war on terror”, the New York Times reported that the US may push its firepower into Pakistan’s vast, economically backward, Baluchistan province.
Washington has so far targeted militants based in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas, which run along Afghanistan’s eastern border. Baluchistan, however, is a “settled” region and considered a regular part of the country. However, the province, and especially its capital, Quetta, has long been considered the home of the Afghan Taliban and an important sanctuary for al-Qaida.
This morning’s reports drew a sharp reaction inside Pakistan.
“The United States would be pouring petrol on the ‘war on terror’ by these methods,” said Munawar Hassan, secretary general of Jamaat-i-Islami, the biggest mainstream religious party. “The United States has no message of peace for the world, they can only talk through arms and armaments.”
Pakistan has opposed the use of US missile strikes in its tribal area, which have killed some leading al-Qaida commanders but also led to the death of innocent civilians. Islamabad complains that the attacks, from unmanned “drone” aircraft operated by the CIA, are a flagrant breach of Pakistani sovereignty.
“As we have been saying all along, we believe such attacks are counterproductive,” said Abdul Basit, the spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign ministry, responding to this morning’s reports. “They involve collateral damage and they are not helpful in our efforts to win hearts and minds.”
The exclusive western focus on the tribal area, which is a hotbed for militants, has meant that the Afghan Taliban leadership, and its al-Qaida allies, have been able to direct the insurgency in Afghanistan unmolested from Baluchistan. But expanding operations to Baluchistan risks creating more volunteers for the Taliban and raising the internal pressure on the Pakistani government, which has struggled to contain anger over US attacks in the tribal area.
In September last year, American forces conducted their first known ground raid within Pakistan, in the tribal area, causing uproar. If Taliban and al-Qaida extremists are in Quetta itself or other urban areas, missile strikes may not be feasible, so American boots on Pakistani soil would be required.
The Pakistani authorities, already under pressure from a domestic insurgency, have been reluctant to stir up further trouble by tackling extremists in Baluchistan, which runs along Afghanistan’s eastern border. According to Kabul, the Taliban founder, Mullah Omar, lives in Quetta. Northern Baluchistan is populated by Pashtuns, the same ethnicity that is the biggest group in Afghanistan and makes up most of the Taliban.
Critics have suggested that Pakistan is using Baluchistan to secretly back the Taliban in Afghanistan, as it sees the regime of Hamid Karzai in Kabul as dangerously close to arch-foe India – a claim denied by Islamabad. Pakistan’s army nurtured the rise of the Taliban, who swept to power in Afghanistan in the mid-90s. However, after 9/11, Islamabad allied itself with the west, which resulted in the creation of a Pakistani Taliban, opposed to their own government.