The continuous struggle along Pakistan's frontier
In the same week when U.S. helicopters mistakenly killed three members of Pakistan's Frontier Corps near the Afghan border, American Special Forces were training members of that same force on how to use radios, sniper rifles and other counterinsurgency tools at a remote base here.
Pakistanis and Americans don't talk much about this joint training camp, northwest of Peshawar about 20 miles from Afghanistan. But the program is a symbol of the weird duality of the relationship -- a mix of public distance and private cooperation that's awkward for both sides.
"We have good relations; it's going very well," Col. Ahsan Raza, the camp commander, said when I visited Tuesday afternoon, two days before the fatal U.S. cross-border attack. But the Pakistani commandant was eager not to appear too close to America, stressing that the U.S. trainers were supplying technical skills, not running the show.
Both sides view the program here as a success story. But the joint effort masks a tension that is only likely to deepen in coming months.
Pakistan wants to use the 70,000-strong Frontier Corps to stabilize the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and halt the domestic Taliban insurgency. The United States, struggling in Afghanistan, wants Pakistan to help seal the border and destroy the sanctuaries used by al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. The two sides talk as if their goals are identical, but they aren't. The differing priorities became clear in conversations last week with Pakistani commanders.
Warsak is a pet project of Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the commander of the Frontier Corps. At his headquarters in the ancient Bala Hissar fortress in Peshawar, the traditional garb of the tribal "scouts," as they're called, makes you wonder whether the days of the British Raj ever really ended. Behind Khan's desk is a plaque bearing the names of his predecessors back to 1907.
Khan argues that it's time for Pakistan to move from big military offensives in the tribal areas to what he calls "policing" actions. "No steamroller operations," he says.
Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who commands the Pakistani army in the western border areas and is Khan's boss, makes the same point. "Don't expect major new kinetic operations," he says. "We have changed gears to a softer approach."
This can't be comforting to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. He is said to have concluded, after several months in Kabul, that more Pakistani pressure on the havens is crucial for American success. That's the basic conflict -- an overstretched America wants a Pakistani surge in the tribal areas; an overstretched Pakistan just wants to keep the peace.
Khan's strategy is an updated version of the old British approach: work through the tribal chiefs, or maliks, keep the roads open and pound any renegades back into line. He wants to maintain order through three tiers of force: local militias, known as "levies," recruited by the maliks; the Frontier Corps dispersed across the FATA; and the big guns of the Pakistani army.
Working with the American trainers at Warsak, Khan has devised some smart tactics: Private vehicles in the FATA will have electronic chips that register their movements. The scouts will report suspicious activities on their American-made radios, and the snipers will blow away any miscreants using their American-made sniper rifles. To demonstrate that order is returning, the burly Khan, the scion of a princely Pashtun family, took a car trip last summer through the FATA with his wife and daughter.
Khan's enthusiasm is infectious: "There are no safe havens in my area of responsibility -- I can take you anywhere, any place, anytime." That sidesteps the fact that North and South Waziristan, the main trouble spots, are still the responsibility of the army.
Driving down the roads of the border areas, you sometimes have the sense that you are traveling back in time. But that "back to the future" strategy is a temporary fix, at best. Pakistan, with U.S. support, should be moving forward, not in reverse. The years of war have shattered the old tribal order, and the long-run goal should be to bring the tribal areas into a modern Pakistan, rather than let them fester on their own.
U.S. drone attacks and other firepower can keep the insurgents on the run, but they won't bring stability. Neither will Tariq Khan's snipers. Somehow, the people in this desolate region have to feel they have a stake in a future that's something other than continuous warfare.