The attack on the Kunar post, because of the sad loss of life, has garnered a lot of attention and comment. But this was, after all, just a minor tactical setback. What should really worry people in the US are the gathering storm clouds that are threatening to jeopardise the entire US-NATO enterprise in Afghanistan. The adjoining tribal territories in Pakistan are rapidly slipping out of control of the country’s government.
Pakistan’s civilian government is in complete disarray. The nominal cabinet has no power; decisions are made by a couple of unelected former fugitives from justice (accused of massive corruption) for whom the US obtained immunity from Musharraf. The political parties and factions are busy undermining each other, the country’s administration is in turmoil, its finances are in a mess, inflation is surging, ordinary people are daily facing shortages of food, water and electricity. The government is trying to negotiate agreements with the tribes, offering them money and autonomy in return for peace – the old policy the British used with considerable success. Unfortunately, when the US used these tribal areas in the 70s as the base from which to launch the jihad to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan (remember the mujahedins, darlings of the West?) they also destroyed the old tribal hierarchies, with radicals and militants taking control. To them, “peace” now means a free hand to support their Pakhtun brethren in Afghanistan in their fight to oust the new invaders. The US will not accept such an agreement. It is not surprising these negotiations are not making much progress.
The Pakistan army, having had its nose bloodied in Musharraf’s earlier attempt to militarily control the tribes, and with its standing in the country badly dented by his political shenanigans, is quite content to use the civilian government’s dithering as an excuse for its inaction; it has no intention of fighting a US proxy war in the tribal territories. It also knows that the US will still continue to pay it large subsidies to ensure the safeguarding of the US supply lines to Afghanistan (and the country’s nuclear weapons).
The US is in a bind. It has to deny the Pakhtun insurgency (the Taliban are only one part of it) the use of the tribal areas as a base. With Pakistan showing no will to control these areas, it is threatening to take unilateral military action there. This will obviously be through air strikes and Special Forces raids, both notorious for their inevitable “collateral damage”. This will add fuel to the fire of militancy, pushing more recruits into the ranks of the jihad, especially the deadly suicide bombers. An insurgency cannot be defeated by a few successful decapitation strikes, or even by turning a rugged mountainous base area into a free-fire zone. The more perceptive US commanders probably know this, but they have to be seen to do something about the continuous guerrilla attacks. How long will the NATO allies stick around fighting an unwinnable war? How long will the US public put up with it?
But that is not the worst of it. Believing Pakistan to be complicit in the US strikes on their people, the tribal militants will turn on it; they have already seen the deadly effect of their suicide bombs in the teeming cities. An already fragile governmental and societal structure will face severe stress; anything could happen. One thing is certain : the religious fundamentalists in the country will take full advantage of this turmoil. For the US, the first impact will be on their supply line through Pakistan. Then, Pakistan itself, as an ally, will be at risk.
One of the most difficult things for both statesman and soldier is to recognize a war as unwinnable before it is proven in the field.