The carnage at Bagram Air Force Base is still being assessed. One report had two Americans and a South Korean killed, with eyewitnesses saying anywhere from four to eight foreigners and at least a score of Afghans were among the dead or wounded. The bomber did not get too far into the Bagram facility: the explosion occurred at the first gate. He would have had to get past at least three other checkpoints before actually being on the base. It is, nevertheless, the latest in a string of violent attacks throughout the country that may herald the start of an anticipated Taliban spring offensive. The Taliban have claimed responsibility, and say they had advance knowledge of Cheney's visit. It is more likely that they sent the bomber out only after it was announced last night that Cheney's talk with Karzai had been delayed due to a snowstorm and they suddenly had an opportunity to make a dramatic statement.
Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban insurgency as a way to gain strategic leverage in the region, a claim Islamabad contests. But over the past several months mounting evidence gathered by U.S., NATO and Afghan intelligence agencies indicates that the resurgent Taliban has treated the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as a revolving door: attacking coalition troops in Afghanistan, then retreating to the ungoverned western frontier of Pakistan to regroup and re-equip.
Islamabad denies that the Taliban is using Pakistan as a sanctuary, and Musharraf vowed last fall to strengthen the border and to crack down on training camps. While Pakistan has closed down some camps, many observers in both Pakistan and Afghanistan say he is not doing enough to stop Taliban and al-Qaeda activity in the region, a sentiment that seems to be shared by the Bush Administration, judging by the recent stream of official visitors to the Pakistani capital.
Americans are particularly concerned about a peace deal Musharraf struck last September with tribal leaders in Waziristan, a mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, in which he offered them greater sovereignty in exchange for promising to kick out foreign militants. Musharraf called the agreement a success and promised President George Bush at the time that "there won't be a Taliban and there won't be an al-Qaeda." However, cross-border attacks have increased threefold since September, according to Coalition forces on the Afghan side, and two weeks ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the situation as a "disappointment."
Cheney's visit is the latest sign of the Administration's growing impatience with Pakistan's inability or reluctance to crack down on Islamic militants. Cheney's talk with Musharraf, while not characterized by the White House as a "tough message," follows a similar visit last month by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Since then murmurs in the U.S. intelligence community reveal mounting concerns that al-Qaeda is reestablishing itself in Waziristan. Stephen Kappes, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, accompanied Cheney on this particular leg of his tour, which may indicate that much of the private conversation revolved around evidence of further al-Qaeda activity in the region.
If that is the case, both Pakistan and Afghanistan may be in for a substantial increase in violence over the next few months. Tasneem Aslam, Pakistan's foreign Ministry spokesperson, says that Musharraf is already doing everything he can to police the region, pointing out that 80,000 troops line the border, some 800 of whom have died in skirmishes with militants from both sides. Pakistan is also fencing heavily trafficked areas, and has installed a biometric identification system at the main western border crossing of Chaman. "We are doing our utmost to stop the cross-border activity," she says. "But we expect matching steps from the other side as well. What are the Afghans doing to combat this problem? Or the U.S.?"
This has become a common refrain in Pakistan, where officials feel they are being unfairly blamed for Afghanistan's failures, and resentment often colors government statements on Pakistani, U.S. and Afghan relations. Following Cheney's visit, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry angrily retorted in a press statement: "Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or any source." That may play well in the Punjab, but Pakistan might want to start learning how to take notes. Democrats in the U.S. are promoting legislation in Congress that would withhold military aid to Pakistan unless President George Bush can certify that the Pakistani government is doing everything it can to halt Taliban and al-Qaeda activity. While such a bill will probably founder in the Senate, the possibility of Congressional intervention is much more effective than a mere lecture. Pakistan is among the biggest beneficiaries of U.S. foreign aid, receiving more than $3.5 billion since 2002.
Even if Musharraf were to double the number of troops on the border, says a Western diplomat in Pakistan, chances are it would exacerbate the problem by fueling anti-government sentiment. "The only way you are going to solve the problem of militancy in the tribal areas is through a massive influx of development," he says. "And even then we are talking 10 to 15 years." That's a grim prescription given that senior Taliban Commander Mullah Dadullah promised in a phone call to Reuters last week that "this year will prove to be the bloodiest for the foreign troops. It is not just a threat, we will prove it." He says he will soon be able to field some 10,000 soldiers, of which 2,000 are trained suicide bombers like the one who blew himself up at Bagram Air Force Base this morning. While his numbers may be large exaggerations, the Taliban have managed to briefly take two towns already this year, a chilling warning of things to come.
While Pakistan and Afghanistan trade barbs over who is most responsible for the Taliban surge, it is clear is that without significant changes in both countries the region risks collapsing into another cauldron of violence like the one that helped foster al-Qaeda. "This is the main battle in the war on terrorism," says Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former Foreign minister. "Al-Qaeda lost its capital in Afghanistan, and they are creating a perception that they are getting it back. It is crucial for the U.S., for Afghanistan, for Pakistan and for the whole world that we prevent this from happening. Our shared goal should be to do whatever it takes to build Afghanistan as a peaceful state."