The US vs. Pakistan: With Friends Like These

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Robert Nickelserg / Getty

US Army soldiers from the North Dakota National Guard monitor Afghan National Border Police (ANBP) with their car and identity checks in Dokalam, Kunar August 29, 2006 eastern Afghanistan.

For one 34-year-old Pakistani soldier, it is a simple matter of respect. The soldier, a Major in the Frontier Corps in the mountainous badlands along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, says recent U.S. military incursions into Pakistan not only breach an agreement between the two countries, but call into question the very spirit of the alliance President Bush says is the most important in the war on terror. "As a Pakistani, nobody likes someone to enter their home. It raises doubts about American credibility and the sincerity of their alliance with Pakistan," says the Major, who asked not to be named because military rules discourage soldiers from speaking to the media. "We have clear territorial limits and when you cross them, it is humiliating for us. The Americans are pushing us against the wall." Far from helping in the fight against terrorist groups, the incursions hurt it, says the Major. Under the circumstances, he adds, "I have to ask myself: 'Why am I doing this?'"

How Pakistan answers that question could help determine the fate of the war on terror. U.S. military leaders have long grumbled that Islamabad's commitment to fighting extremism was ambiguous at best — and duplicitous at worst. The new post-Musharraf government says it is serious about the fight, and offers as proof its two-month long military offensive in Bajaur, the northernmost chunk of the tribal belt. But, say Pakistani officials, U.S. incursions over the past two months, including an incident on Sept. 25 in which two U.S. helicopters and Pakistani soldiers in a border post engaged each other in a five-minute-long firefight, are alienating the Pakistani people and cramping Pakistan's ability to move.

The tensions come as the militants have stepped up their campaign inside Pakistan, strengthening their hold over huge swathes of the country and launching ever more deadly strikes in its cities, including a Sept. 20 truck bombing that killed more than 50 people at Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. U.S. Army General David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, believes the militants are now so strong that they pose an "existential threat to the future of Pakistan." Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters at the Pentagon on September 26 that the terrorist safe haven in Pakistan "has gotten safer this year. The insurgency has gotten more sophisticated."

Pakistan's leaders say their own response to the terrorist threat has likewise stepped up a notch. They point to the Bajaur offensive as exhibit A: The operation, which began in early August, was initially a defensive action to stop militants overrunning the regional headquarters of Khaar. Over the past few weeks, Pakistani troops have gone on the offensive, using aerial attacks and ground troops supported by tanks and artillery in one of the fiercest battles inside Pakistan since 9/11. Pakistan's army bosses say they have killed more than 1,200 militants, including foreign fighters from the Middle East and Central Asia. The militants, who are armed with Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and who have built sophisticated defenses from which to fight, have destroyed at least one Pakistani tank and killed dozens. Pakistani soldiers. Local tribesmen, who have long resented the presence of foreign militants in the region, have formed their own militias to take up the fight. "This is a war which we are fighting," says Rehman Malik, the advisor to Pakistan's prime minister on interior affairs. "As far as recognition, I think our allies are now realizing what we are doing."

Though initially skeptical about the offensive, U.S. military officials now believe the battle in Bajaur is having an impact, not least because it is sucking in militants from around the region. Pakistani officials say the number of attacks in Afghanistan's Kunar Province, across the border from Bajaur, has gone down in the past few weeks, as militants head to Pakistan to help their brothers there. (Coalition officials in Afghanistan say they have noticed no change in activity in Kunar.)

Pakistani officials see Bajaur as a turning point. On President Pervez Musharraf's watch, they say, military offensives were repeatedly cut short to allow deals to be struck with the militants, and the deals invariably failed. This time, says advisor Malik, the militants asked for a ceasefire "which we have declined." The army will fight on, he promises, "until the operation is done to its full conclusion."

But U.S. incursions hurt that fight, Pakistani officials say. Opinion polls routinely show that an overwhelming majority of ordinary Pakistanis oppose U.S. actions inside their country. The government has to respond to public sentiment, leading to harsh, uncompromising language from political and military leaders. General Ashfaq Kayani, Musharraf's successor as military chief, has publicly railed against U.S. operations on Pakistani soil, saying they help the cause of the militancy; he has promised to protect the borders from such incursions. After the September 25 incursion, chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told TIME that Pakistani troops would hereafter shoot at any force "seen as hostile or in an offensive posture," coming across the border. Any Americans making the crossing, he warned, should not expect Pakistani soldiers to ask questions before shooting. "At the level of a [border] post [Pakistani troops] are not to be given shades of an order... they're supposed to engage."

All the same, U.S. officials privately say that air strikes into Pakistan will continue, as will "hot pursuits" across the border, when appropriate. After all, The Bajaur operation is a long way from over, and there is still no guarantee that it won't end in the kind of messy compromise that has marked previous actions. The offensive has already forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes; 20,000 families have fled across the border into Afghanistan to avoid the fighting, taking their stories and grievances with them. If history is any judge, a new generation of militants — as anti-Pakistani as they are anti-American — will emerge from these camps. If Bajaur is a crucial front for the Pakistani military, the terrorists know not to get cornered into any last stands; they are striking across the country. Al-Qaeda and Taliban bombers are now able to strike Karachi and Islamabad; following the Marriott bombing, militants have targeted political leaders across the country. Their reach also imperils the U.S. military's supply lines into Afghanistan — 80% of dry cargo and 40% of the fuel used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan.

U.S. military officials plainly want to keep their supply lines running through Pakistan, but are preparing alternate routes if Islamabad orders them shut down. "We're working our way through to understand rail, pipelines, customs, what it would take, are they there in a sufficient scale to allowus to do this?" Marine General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the JointChiefs told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 23. Under the circumstances, say U.S. officials, it makes little sense to give up the option of cross-border operations — the Pakistanis have not yet demonstrated that they can fight this on their own.

Many Pakistanis agree, but argue that the assistance they require doesn't include American boots on Pakistani soil. The Frontier Corps Major says Pakistan needs more help with equipment, not to be marginalized as an ally. "We want to fight this war with such conviction that no one can accuse us offighting this war incompetently," he says.

With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington and Omar Waraich/Islamabad

(Click here for photos on the changing face of Karachi.)

(Click here for a TIME cover story on Pakistan.)