- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Afghanistan and Pakistan are fighting a common enemy in the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the nature of insurgency and engagement is quite different in the two countries. The Pakistani military is fighting an insurgency mainly against its own people. It’s different in Afghanistan: Our Afghan forces are fighting terrorist mercenaries that primarily infiltrate from, and are trained and equipped by, elements from across our southeastern border.

Furthermore, the Pakistani security institutions have 62 years of experience, maintained by the country’s heavy defense spending and international aid. By contrast, Afghanistan’s security institutions are just emerging. These fundamental differences necessitate that the counterterrorism effort and the perception of the region be bifocal - focusing on the specific conditions in each country rather than lumping them into one, overly simplified “Af-Pak” region.

In Afghanistan, as recommended by the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the number of U.S. and NATO forces must be increased to provide transitional stability. This would allow the Afghan security forces to develop, gradually enabling us to protect our citizens and provide an environment for democracy to take root and for trade and investment to flourish. And as we expand, train and equip our security institutions, we can take greater security responsibility from ISAF to stabilize and defend Afghanistan.

Things are different in Pakistan, however. There, the Taliban have been strategically tolerated to provide refuge for al Qaeda and its affiliated networks in order to operate and direct terrorist activities in Afghanistan. In his recent assessment, Gen. McChrystal noted that the insurgency in Afghanistan is “clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI,” which is its intelligence service.

The frequent peace deals that Pakistan signed with various local Taliban groups between 2004 and 2008 are prime examples of accommodating the Taliban, which senior Pakistani officials have termed “a local solution to a local problem.” In February 2009, for instance, Pakistan and the Taliban entered into a peace agreement in the Swat Valley.

However, the United States, NATO and Afghanistan strongly objected to it. We knew that the peace deal would enable the Taliban and al Qaeda to resupply and organize to carry out increased terrorist operations in Afghanistan. As expected, security began deteriorating in both countries soon after the peace deal. In Pakistan, the withdrawal of military forces from the Swat Valley led to its complete fall to the Taliban, where they soon declared Shariah rule. This, in turn, led to intensification of insurgency and terrorist attacks by the Taliban in the south and east of Afghanistan.

So far, Pakistan’s sweeping military operations to retake the lost ground from the Taliban have led to a massive humanitarian crisis and displacement of civilians in the North-West Frontier Province. This has alienated the border region’s most impoverished tribes, among whom al Qaeda has heavily recruited desperate and illiterate youths to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan.

At the same time, Pakistan’s conventional operations have proved inept against an unconventional, elusive enemy. These operations have either displaced Taliban fighters to new areas in Pakistan or pushed them over into Afghanistan.

Thus, to help operationalize the U.S. policy of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, Pakistan’s capable military and intelligence institutions must focus on strategic rather than tactical operations. Such operations by Pakistan can succeed only if the country sincerely commits to honest intelligence-sharing with its key allies: the United States, NATO and Afghanistan.

Effective intelligence will enable Pakistan and its allies to focus on and hit the strategic targets: leadership of al Qaeda and Taliban, their financing sources within and outside Pakistan, as well as terrorist sanctuaries in rural or urban areas of the country. The net result of such direly needed cooperation among Pakistan and its allies would go a long way to avoid civilian suffering in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to succeed in the fight against extremism and terrorism in both countries.

Indeed, to the enemy, Afghanistan and Pakistan are one and the same: training grounds, sources of recruits and targets of their unscrupulous acts of terrorism. But our situations are clearly different even though we are fighting the same common enemy. It is up to us and the international community to understand our unique positions and different circumstances, and to alter the Af-Pak perception of the region accordingly. As the renewed international effort, spearheaded by the United States, gathers steam, this consideration becomes crucially important. The enemy does not distinguish between us. We must.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan.

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