US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Islamabad on Wednesday, October 28 for an unusually long three-day visit. The strains of a Pakistani military band accompanying her warm handshakes with a long line of Pakistani dignitaries, many of them military officials, jarred badly with the diabolical sounds of Taliban bombs sowing death and devastation in the Afghan capital of Kabul and Pakistan's Peshawar.
Her carefully prepared speech at a joint news conference with the Pakistani foreign minister Mohammed Quraishi was shouted down by the volatile reality in and around Islamabad.
Before she landed, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) greeted her with a threat to make the country a graveyard for Westerners if the Pakistani army failed to desist from its offensive “at Washington's behest” on the Mehsud fiefdom of South Waziristan.
As she sat down for talks with Pakistani officials, the death toll from a huge car bomb explosion that ripped through the crowded women's market in the northern Pakistani Peshawar climbed past 100, with hundreds critically injured and many more trapped under the rubble.
She will need every ounce of diplomatic acumen to carry through the tough tasks confronting her:
The first is to ascertain that the big Pakistani offensive in the lawless region athwart its border with Afghanistan does not flag before the Taliban leadership is wiped out and its following broken as a viable military force.
At the very least, she must keep the Pakistani operation turning over at full strength.
Her second goal, with the help of Barack Obama's $7.5 billion aid pledge, is to try and stem the rising anti-American tide on the Pakistani street and inside the armed forces.
“The US Dollars War”
Most of DEBKA-Net-Weekly“s sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan are deeply skeptical of her chances of pulling off any of her objectives owing to three formidable impediments:
1. Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari and prime minister Yousef Raza Gilani are fast losing credibility at home for sending the Pakistan army to fight an increasingly unpopular war against the Taliban in South Waziristan. The street calls it “The US Dollars War,” alluding to the stream of American aid dollars commonly believed to be lining the pockets of corrupt politicians in Islamabad. Pakistanis say the army is being pushed by American intervention to fight fellow countrymen, lighting a match that could ignite civil war and mire their country in the same predicament as Afghanistan, i.e. never-ending hostilities.
2. A rift is widening between the top echelons of the Pakistan military, headed by Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the president and government.
While the politicians brush off popular rancor, the military cannot afford to, because the disaffection is permeating the ranks. The officer corps, furthermore, especially the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence service (ISI), maintains that the South Waziristan campaign against Taliban is detrimental to Pakistan's position vis-a-vis India. Their argument is that special US envoy Richard Holbrooke's failure to bring India to the negotiating table on the Kashmir issue has forced them to redirect their energies: Weakening Taliban would strengthen India's hand in Kashmir and Afghanistan and is therefore against Pakistan's vital interests.
Pakistan strength in South Waziristan is kept below par
3. Pakistani government heads may smoothly promise Clinton the troops will fight until Taliban is routed; but our military sources report the generals have no intention of delivering on that pledge. In fact, the army is consciously planning to avoid engaging South Waziristan's two main tribal groups, the Pashtun Mehsud and the Waziris, as well as the Burkis tribe, the Taliban's main purveyor of intelligence and arms. They may target their Taliban chiefs to render the insurgent groups headless, but that's as far as they will go.
Islamabad feels it is getting crossed signals from Washington: relentless pressure to keep on fighting terrorists and insurgents contrasting with the leisurely pace of the White House decision on strategy for the Afghan/Pakistan arena. Pakistan's war planners are accordingly reluctant to commit the army to a course that might turn out to be irrelevant at the end of Washington's decision-making process.
This uncertainty has direct bearing on the number and types of Pakistani forces consigned to the South Waziristan offensive. They are officially put at 28,000, when no more than 9,000 to 10,000 fighting men are deployed on the ground, and none have been drawn from Pakistan's elite combat units. They are therefore outnumbered by the Taliban's 10-12,000 fighting strength.
Pashtuns here, there and everywhere
Tribal considerations were pronounced in Islamabad's military planning. Elite units were kept out of the fray because they are dominated by tribal compatriots of the Pashtun enemy, Hakumullah Mehsed, the Pakistan Taliban's chief. Pashtun troops were in general replaced by soldiers of Punjabi origin.
The high command in Islamabad explains the inadequate fighting strength in South Waziristan by pointing at the Obama administration's current policy for Afghanistan, which is to field enough combat troops to keep the Taliban under pressure, but not enough to win the war. To defeat the Taliban and its associates, Western military experts estimate, at least 50-60,000 Pakistan troops would have been needed.
Because Washington and the Pakistan military are at cross-purposes, the Obama administration is maintaining a watchful presence of high US officials rotating in Islamabad. Clinton follows in the footsteps of US Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, and Afghanistan theater commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Senate foreign relations committee Chairman, John Kerry was there in mid-October.