- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

Pakistan’s worst natural disaster in its 58-year history, which killed tens of thousands and left several million people homeless, is also a major blow to the U.S. military campaign against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

Many of the 80,000 Pakistani troops deployed along the Pakistani-Afghan border to thwart Taliban and al Qaeda movements between the two countries are being called back for disaster relief operations to the east, including Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Following the battle of Tora Bora in Nov.-Dec. 2001, President Bush urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to send troops to seal escape routes and capture al Qaeda remnants. A few jihadis from Middle Eastern and North African countries were captured but the bulk of Tora Bora survivors escaped into Pakistan where sympathetic tribesmen sheltered them.

Pressed by Mr. Bush, Mr. Musharraf deployed some 80,000 troops, with interlocking fields of fire over gorges and ravines, along 1,300 miles of jagged mountains and flatlands that constitute an unmarked demarcation line. In return, the U.S. agreed its troops would not operate on the Pakistani side of the border. U.S. Special Forces teams occasionally stray but get no assistance from the Pakistanis.

The Pentagon may see the post-earthquake situation as an opening to negotiate freedom of movement for U.S. forces in border regions. This could be a quid pro quo for Chinook helicopters the U.S. assigned to evacuate survivors from villages inaccessible by road, as well as to supply food and medical supplies. The risk is that his many detractors, including some ambitious generals, will see this as another “surrender to U.S. demands.”

Massive U.S. assistance, on a scale comparable to the tsunami relief operations in Southeast Asia, might change perceptions about the Bush administration. But Katrina’s enormous demands have probably drained much U.S. relief potential.

By treaty at the time of independence from Britain, Pakistan agreed to keep its troops out of what is called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Pashtun tribes did not welcome their deployment in FATA in the last four years.

The tribal domain extends on both sides of the border, which the indigenous people have ignored ever since imperial Britain and Afghanistan established the Durand Line in 1893 for 100 years. British colonial official Sir Henry Mortimer Durand’s construct expired 12 years ago.

The 60 Pashtun clans, all speaking the common Pashto language, number about 30 million, almost evenly divided between both sides of the border. The clans retain their own legal order, with elders’ councils and local jirgas (courts), and the right to resolve tribal feuds over land and livestock by war.

Mostly dug in behind their machine guns, Pakistani soldiers avoid tribal villages where they have been met with hostile fire. Again urged by the U.S., Pakistani troops launched a major sweep through North and South Waziristan earlier this year and lost several hundred men in a major battle with al Qaeda forces from former Soviet Muslim republics and Arab countries.

In a recent trip to north Waziristan, this reporter heard from his escorts that several thousand al Qaeda jihadis had settled in the region after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Many married local girls and were adopted by tribal villagers. Even if Pakistani troops were ordered to sweep the villages, they would not enter individual dwellings because the women cannot be seen by strangers. Burqas are de rigueur throughout FATA. Osama bin Laden and his immediate entourage are believed well concealed and protected somewhere in north or south Waziristan.

Taliban elements are seldom bothered by Pakistani troops. Occasionally, Pakistani authorities arrest a former Taliban official, which cynics in Pakistan say is done “to placate the Americans.” Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency midwifed creation of the Taliban regime in the early 1990s and assisted its conquest of Afghanistan in 1996. Some 1,500 ISI agents were assigned to Taliban’s obscurantist medieval rule and to al Qaeda’s score of terrorist training camps.

Today, in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, in Chaman, the Pakistani border town on the road to Kandahar, and in Peshawar, the capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, black turbaned Taliban men move with impunity. Both provinces are governed by a coalition of six politico-religious parties, known as MMA, sympathetic to bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The transfer of Pakistani troops from the Durand Line to earthquake relief operations will also give al Qaeda greater freedom of movement. The unwritten order in Pakistan units assigned to the border regions was to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives and ignore Taliban. How one could be distinguished from the other with binoculars and night vision equipment has never been clear.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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