AT the Aspen Security Conference, Pakistani Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman and President Obama’s special adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gen Douglas Lute (retd), squared off over cross-border raids on Saturday. When Ms Rehman complained about the rising incidents of cross-border attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan, Mr Lute struck back with long-standing accusations that Pakistan was effectively sponsoring Afghan Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan from sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border. Who’s right, who’s wrong – partisans can debate the subject endlessly. More independent observers would suggest that both sides are to blame. The recent attacks into Pakistan – particularly the savage attacks in Dir in June, but also in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies – have clearly riled up the Pakistani security establishment, which believes that Afghan and American forces in Afghanistan have either looked the other way or not done enough to stop the attacks into Pakistan. It is an entirely plausible accusation and one that neither the Afghan government nor the Americans have done much to credibly distance themselves from.
The danger at present is that the low-level attacks into Pakistan could spiral out of control as Pakistan reacts and Afghanistan counter-reacts. In response to the killings and beheadings of Pakistani security personnel in Dir, the Pakistani security forces shelled villages along the border in Kunar where they believed the attacks emanated from. Angered by this, the Afghan forces have shown signs of increasingly turning to hot pursuit of Afghan militants with sanctuaries on this side of the border. If not checked, this cycle of violence and counter-violence could get out of control, particularly given acute mistrust on both sides of the border.
Unwelcome as the suggestion may be in Pakistani security circles, perhaps the first move toward ratcheting down the tension should come from the Pakistani side. Unpalatable as it is, Douglas Lute was closer to the truth than Ms Rehman’s formulation when he said, “There’s no comparison of the Pakistani Taliban’s relatively recent, small-in-scale presence inside Afghanistan ... to the decades-long experience and relations between elements of the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban.” The key, then, to resolving this – or realistically, just managing the problem – lies perhaps in North Waziristan. While the Haqqani network contributes no more than 15-20 per cent of attacks inside Afghanistan, it does carry out a disproportionately large number of the high-profile, headline-grabbing attacks. If something were to be done about that problem, perhaps cooperation from the Afghan side on problems that concern Pakistan would be forthcoming.