By Daniel Markey, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel Markey is a senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
On Wednesday and Thursday, U.S. drones fired missiles in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan for the first known strikes since late December. In the wake of this week’s two terrorist attacks on Karachi’s airport, the drone strikes mean one of two things. Either Pakistan’s leaders have finally decided to launch a long-awaited military offensive in North Waziristan, the home base of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), or U.S. officials have grown so frustrated with Pakistan’s dithering that they decided to take the fight into their own hands.
Let’s hope that Pakistan has finally decided for war. The next six months offer what is likely the best – and quite possibly the last – chance for Washington and Islamabad to work together against a terrorist group that threatens the peace in Pakistan, has extended its operations into Afghanistan, and would undoubtedly attack the United States if ever given the chance.
Any further delay would be costly. As President Barack Obama announced last month, all but 9,800 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by year’s end. That drawdown in military power will also mean reduced CIA operations along the Pakistani border, including the sort of surveillance and drone strikes that would give any Pakistan military operation a greater lethal punch.
Had they been wiser, Pakistani leaders would have launched a North Waziristan campaign several years ago, when U.S. forces were present in greater numbers. Indeed, Islamabad and Washington used to speak of a “hammer and anvil” approach to striking terrorists all along the rugged and porous border, but despite frequent American entreaties, Pakistan’s leaders were never willing to strike. Over the past year, Pakistan’s civilian government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has preferred fruitless, on-again-off-again peace talks with the TTP to war.
Better late than never, though, because the TTP has shown itself to be a resilient adversary with every intention of bringing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of nearly 200 million people, to its knees. Karachi is but the latest of the TTP’s many atrocities, and not the first time the group has hit a high-profile and presumably well-defended target.
In addition to several attacks on major Pakistani military bases, Taliban operatives also allegedly murdered former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, shot the young student activist Malala Yousafzai and were linked to the blowing up of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel. Although the TTP is not yet as sophisticated an enemy as al Qaeda, its leaders are opportunistic and believed to be eager to take their fight to distant shores – Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who in May 2010 attempted to blow up his SUV in Times Square, collaborated with the TTP.
To their belated credit, Pakistan’s generals now recognize the TTP as their greatest immediate security threat (although India always looms just over the horizon). The trouble lies in the way the army has handled its disagreements with Pakistan’s civilian government about when and how to confront that threat. Rather than accepting Sharif’s authority and influencing his policy decisions through a normal advisory process, the military has resorted to nasty tricks, like shutting down the nation’s biggest television network, Geo. Geo’s ties to the prime minister run deep, and the military’s muscle flexing sends the unmistakable message that Sharif could be the next to go.
In short, Pakistan’s generals are stoking the flames of a civil-military dispute at precisely the time when the nation’s leaders need to pull together against the TTP. Although few Pakistanis anticipate a Thai or Egyptian-style coup in the offing – if only because Pakistan’s army has learned through experience the downsides of trying to run the country itself – rumors abound that the top brass is looking to install a more pliable civilian replacement for Sharif.
Unfortunately, none of Pakistan’s realistic alternatives to Sharif hold great promise as statesmen or administrators, and by riding into office on the back of the military, the next government would be born tarnished by democratic illegitimacy. That combination of ineffective and unpopular rule is a classic recipe for state failure. The Pakistani Taliban could hardly hope for more.
For its part, the United States should not speak only the language of drone strikes, which will be of only tactical utility if not followed by a serious ground campaign. Limited as Washington’s diplomatic leverage with Pakistan may be, billions in U.S. economic and military assistance still buy sufficient access to deliver tough messages to Pakistan’s generals and politicians. Pakistan’s army needs a quick, stiff warning to stop hounding the media and government. The civilian government, in turn, would benefit from outside encouragement to mobilize public support for a ground campaign against the Taliban in North Waziristan, likely to be long and costly under even the best of circumstances.
Such messages would be strengthened if delivered in coordination with Pakistan’s other close friends in China and Saudi Arabia, both of whom would also prefer to see a unified Pakistani state seize its best chance to bring the Taliban insurgency to heel.