Pakistan's Border Badlands Are a Challenge for the Next President

Eliminating Pakistan's havens for al Qaeda and the Taliban is a goal for either McCain or Obama.

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In Pakistan, a truck that was carrying fuel to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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Kunar Province, Afghanistan—In the lush heart of the Kunar River basin, where valleys active with enemy forces snake toward the border with Pakistan, U.S. military units have been picking up some compelling intelligence. The insurgent groups striking U.S. outposts here seem to be having trouble paying their recruits, because of the rising cost of ammunition. This financial squeeze, U.S. officials believe, is the result of a newly paved road that makes it easier for Afghan security forces to interdict smuggled wares, driving up the cost of weapons coming from nearby Pakistan.

In this easternmost American outpost in Afghanistan, U.S. officials are anxious for such signs that they are making some headway against the Taliban fighters, who pay little attention to the porous mountain border that bisects the traditional Pashtun tribal lands. It's a border that limits the reach of American and Afghan troops and provides the Taliban and al Qaeda members a safe haven and a steady source of supplies.

This rugged territory of towering mountains and deep-rooted tribal loyalties will figure prominently on the national security to-do list of the next president. He will have to find ways to persuade Pakistani officials—some of whom are lending support to the Taliban—to go after extremists in the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where Osama bin Laden is also thought to be hiding. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week said that al Qaeda leaders there are plotting new attacks on the United States and that Pakistan has not done enough to stop them. The Government Accountability Office, in a report issued in April, sharply criticized the Bush administration for failing to effectively target these sanctuaries. And a Pentagon-funded Rand study issued last week stresses the need to eliminate the insurgents' support base in Pakistan. "The failure to do so," it says, "will cripple long-term efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan."

Indeed, six years after the invasion of Afghanistan, neo-Taliban fighters trained in the ungoverned tribal regions of Pakistan have regrouped and returned here with relative ease, hardened by years of war. "The Taliban leadership now is different from what we were seeing in 1994," says a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan. "The elder leaders are still there, but it's arguable how much actual no-kidding directive power they have. These young guys are in control of the fight now, and they are more ruthless, more vicious, in some ways a little more competent, and definitely more aggressive."

Plotters. Just across the border, Pakistan provides a staging area for what U.S. military officials call a "syndicate of insurgents," including al Qaeda fighters from Chechnya and Saudi Arabia, the Haqqani network of militants, criminals, and members of Hezb-i-Islami—a group led by radical Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now virulently anti-American but a CIA ally during the fight to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. U.S. officials are still trying to figure out the extent of cooperation among these groups, but the common denominator is that each has its own command-and-control hub in Pakistan. Dismal refugee camps there, remnants of the Soviet-war era when millions of Afghans fled, have been fertile recruiting grounds.

The question is what to do about it. Pakistan has claimed various antiextremist deals in the past with tribal leaders, which have failed to hold up, and it's not clear that the new government will do any better. Pakistan bars U.S. ground forces from crossing the border, though CIA Predator drones have carried out cross-border strikes. The U.S.-led coalition acknowledged an attack last week targeting Taliban militants said to have fired on coalition forces operating in Kunar province. Pakistan protested that the airstrike killed 11 paramilitary border guards. A coalition statement said the Pakistani Army had been informed of the clashes, but the Pakistani military offered a differing account of events and said the "completely unprovoked and cowardly" airstrike could undermine future cooperation.