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Friday, 6 November 2009

6 November 2009

I suspect you’ve been reading and hearing quite a lot about Afghanistan over the past few days. But how much have you been reading about Pakistan?

The shooting dead on Tuesday of five British servicemen by an Afghan police officer whom they’d been training seems to have brought to a head many of the nagging questions that a lot of people have been asking about the whole Afghan operation.

Can we trust them? Is it worth it? Might it be better just to leave them to get on with it?

In Washington and London, the answers from government are Yes, Yes, and No. As I write, Gordon Brown is about to re-state his government’s determination to stay the course – Britain, he says, “will not be deterred, dissuaded or diverted.”

Meanwhile, in Pakistan …

The army is conducting a huge operation against Taliban fighters in the border region of South Waziristan. No foreign observers or reporters are allowed anywhere near the scene, other than on tightly-escorted trips … so we have no idea what’s happening. But it’s hugely difficult terrain, and it has defeated countless military operations before.

The government has been told to its face, by Hillary Clinton on her recent visit, that Washington doubts its resolve in dealing with jihadi insurgents. Many Western analysts believe that some army elements are still quietly backing jihadis based in Punjab, close to the border with India, even as the military are battling against their fellow-jihadis at the other end of the country.

Why? Because to many of the military top brass, even after everything that has happened over the past two to three years, it’s India that remains Public Enemy Number 1, not jihadi fighters. And if some jihadi groups can continue to make trouble for India in Kashmir – and let’s not forget the attacks in Mumbai a year ago – well, that, they seem to think, is bound to be good for Pakistan.

Looked at from Rawalpindi, the Pakistani military HQ, India is a military giant: its standing army, including reservists, is more than 3 million strong, making it the second largest military force in the world, after China. And a substantial chunk of that military might is stationed along the border with Pakistan.

The Obama administration insists that it recognises the crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan as inextricably linked. Hence that ugly name AfPak for its strategic approach. But for the simple reason that there are US troops dying in Afghanistan, and not in Pakistan, that’s where the attention is focused. (And because British troops are dying there too, we hear far more here about the Af than the Pak.)

So what flows from all this? Well, it’s cerainly true that Pakistan is in a permanent state of crisis. It is used to weak government, rampant corruption and insecurity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read – or even written – that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Perhaps if the political leaders of Pakistan and India were able to do more to improve their relationship, then their military chiefs would stop glowering at each other with thousands of troops stationed more or less permanently on their borders. And then, perhaps, they could turn their attention to their domestic insurgents.

(The so-called Naxalite insurgency in India goes almost wholly unreported … did you know, for example, that just a couple of months ago, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites, or Maoists, as “perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces”?)

My point is this: yes, of course, Afghanistan has to remain the priority as long as our governments are sending troops there to fight and die. But Pakistan remains a serious issue, with a gruesome series of bomb attacks over recent weeks already beginning to dull the senses with their frequency.

Perhaps the fog will clear a bit after President Obama has announced what he intends to do about the US military’s request for tens of thousands more troops for Afghanistan. But the truth is that there is no end in sight. And things could get a lot worse before they get better.

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