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Duplicity in Pakistan’s borderlands

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The flag of Pakistan waves in the breeze as the sun sets on the world's ninth highest mountain, Nanga Parbat, at the mountain resort of Fairy Meadows in Pakistan on Friday, June 13, 2014. Last year 10 international climbers on an expedition to the summit of Nanga Parbat were murdered by Taliban gunmen, an event which has caused the number of international visitors to the mountain to plummet.

PHOTO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST BY MAX BECHERER / POLARIS IMAGES Enlarge Image

The flag of Pakistan waves in the breeze as the sun sets on the world's ninth highest mountain, Nanga Parbat, at the mountain resort of Fairy Meadows in Pakistan on Friday, June 13, 2014. Last year 10 international climbers on an expedition to the summit of Nanga Parbat were murdered by Taliban gunmen, an event which has caused the number of international visitors to the mountain to plummet.

It is impossible to defeat an insurgency, a U.S. commander of NATO’s forces in Afghanistan once said between clenched teeth, when the insurgents enjoy an inviolable sanctuary in a neighboring country. The problem has plagued the 13-year military effort in Afghanistan. Foreign and Afghan forces have been unable to deal a knockout blow to the Taliban when so much of their infrastructure remains intact just across the border, in the badlands of northwestern Pakistan.

Now, it is Pakistan’s turn to feel the frustration. Its army is in the thick of long-awaited operations to clear Pakistani militants from North Waziristan, one of the tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan. This week it appears to have regained control of the remote region’s capital, Miranshah. But the government in Islamabad is crying foul over the presence of militant safe havens on Afghan soil. The Pakistani army has renewed calls for Afghanistan to catch Mullah Fazlullah, leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). Known also as the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP is an umbrella grouping of violent Islamists and is Pakistan’s gravest threat (it is reckoned to have few formal links to its Afghan namesake). Fazlullah could be hiding in Kunar or Nuristan, two of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

Many Afghans regard the call as exceptional cheek from a country that for years has done little to clear its vast swath of northwestern territory of workshops making bombs destined for Afghanistan and radical madrassas indoctrinating Afghan fighters. The senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban, the Quetta Shura, is even named after the Pakistani city in which most of its members live.

Indeed, many in the Pakistani establishment have actively assisted a movement regarded as useful in Pakistan’s obsessive struggle to lessen Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has other reasons to resent Afghanistan, which voted against Pakistan’s membership of the United Nations in 1947. It thinks Afghanistan vies for the affections of ethnic Pashtuns living in Pakistan. Many of them live in a part of Pakistan that Afghanistan claims the British Raj took unfairly. For all these reasons, since the mid-1970s Pakistan has backed Islamist militants as proxies in Afghanistan.

Many Pakistanis think Afghanistan is now getting its own back. In cahoots with India, they say, Afghanistan is both helping the TTP and stoking rebellion in the restive Pakistani province of Balochistan. Western diplomats say this view is overblown. In both instances Afghan assistance is marginal at best. It is also unclear what Afghanistan’s hard-pressed security forces could do about Nuristan, a place so tough that NATO abandoned it in 2010 after failing to subdue it.

But perhaps Afghanistan has tried playing its own double game. In late 2013 American soldiers arrested a senior TTP commander after he was tracked to a secret meeting with Afghan intelligence officers. A diplomat likens the situation to a devilish game-theory puzzle. Mutual co-operation would produce the best outcome for all. But players seem unable to resist striking each other.

An optimistic view is that Pakistan’s decision to launch Operation Zarb-e-Azb (loosely translated: "strike of the Prophet’s sword") on June 15 in a bid to clear North Waziristan of militants suggests it has at last understood that a shocking increase in domestic terrorism far outweighs any possible advantages from the long-standing policy of backing militants. And though army officers have been notably reluctant to identify Afghan insurgent groups by name — and the deadly Haqqani network in particular — they insist the operation will make no distinction between foreign and domestic terrorists. Many analysts remain skeptical, however. After all, Afghan insurgents in North Waziristan seem to have had ample time to make themselves scarce before the operation began.

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