INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR---PAPER NO.447
The rules of engagement relating to Pakistan's tribal belt followed by the US forces in Afghanistan before July,2008, were that whilePakistan had agreed to deniable air strikes by unmanned Predator aircraft of the US on suspected terrorist hide-outs in Pakistani territoryadjoining the Pakistan-Afghan border in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it had not agreed to any unilateral ground strikes bythe US forces based in Afghanistan either in exercise of the right of hot pursuit or to pre-empt planned attacks by Al Qaeda and the Talibanon the NATO forces in Afghanistan from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory.
2. According to leaks to sections of the US media by unidentified US officials, in the middle of July President George Bush approved somechanges in the rules of engagement relating to ground strikes under which he authorised the US special forces to undertake unilateralground strikes in Pakistani territory under certain circumstances. In this connection, reference is invited to my previous article titled PAK-US SNAFU of 13-9-08 at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers29/paper2843.html .
3. Under these revised rules of engagement, a ground strike in Pakistani territory was undertaken by the US special forces in the SouthWaziristan area on September 3,2008. According to Pakistani claims, the strike was not successful and resulted only in the deaths of somecivilians.
4. This ground strike and the stepped up Predator air strikes since the present-Pakistan People's Party-led coalition came to office on March18,2008, came in for strong criticism from the Pakistan Army, including its Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, and thepolitical leaders of the present Government. They were embarrassed by speculation that the Government had infiormally agreed to therevised rules of engagement during the visit of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani to Washington DC in the last week of July,2008.
5. The US ground strike of September 3 and the stepped-up air strikes also came in for criticism from tribals, who have remained loyal to theGovernment and have been co-operating with it in its operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) headed by Baitullah Mehsud ofSouth Waziristan. The Government had to take note of the widespread criticism of the US air and ground strikes from the tribals of the areabecause of the possible impact of their anger on the Frontier Corps (FC) and the Frontier Constabulary on which the Army relies for itsmilitary operations in the tribal areas. The FC is deployed in the FATA and the Frontier Constabulary in the North-West Frontier Province(NWFP). Both consist largely of Pashtuns recruited from the tribal belt, but officered mainly by Punjabis from the Army.
6.The revised rules of engagement were greeted with concern not only in the NATO countries, but by influential American experts onPakistan, who apprehended that unilateral ground strikes by the US special forces in Pakistani territory might prove counter-productive.They argued that apart from adding to the prevailing instability in the tribal area, they could also create dangerous situations if Al Qaeda orthe Taliban managed to capture some of the raiding American forces. During a private visit to the UK to admit his daughter in a localUniversity, President Asif Ali Zardari met Prime Minister Gordon Brown and reportedly urged him to advise the US to desist from undertakingany more ground strikes similar to that of September 3.
7. The concern in Pakistan over the political and operational implications of the revised rules of engagement led to an unscheduled visit toIslamabad by Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman, US Joins Chief of Staff, on September 16 and 17,2008, during which he met Prime MinisterGilani and Gen.Kayani. A statement issued by the US Embassy in Islamabad after his meetings said: "Admiral Mullen reiterated the UScommitment to respect Pakistan's sovereignty and to develop further US-Pakistan cooperation and coordination on these critical issuesthat challenge the security and well-being of the people of both countries."
8. Even as Admiral Mullen was in Islamabad for his meetings, US forces based in Afghanistan undertook yet another ( the 13th since March18) Predator air strike on September 17,2008, on an alleged Al Qaeda hide-out in the same area of South Waziristan where the US specialforces had carried out a ground strike on September 3. Seven persons---two of them Arabs of Al Qaeda and one a terrorist from Punjab---were reported to have been killed in this air strike.
9. This air strike clearly indicated that the reported US assurances to respect Pakistani sovereignty in its territory did not apply to airstrikes, which could continue as before. In fact, the Pakistan Army itself had agreed to these air strikes when Musharraf was the Presidentand the COAS. Kayani was a party to that decision and he could not now object to such air strikes unless the Army wanted the permissionfor air strikes accorded by Musharraf to be withdrawn.
10. However, Musharraf had consistently refused to agree to unilateral ground strikes by the US special forces. The present Government cannot give the impression that it had gone even further than Musharraf in its co-operation with the US forces in their operations against AlQaeda and the Taliban
11. The US has been undertaking air strikes only in those areas of South and North Waziristan, which are no longer under the de factocontrol of the Pakistan Government and where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have established their de facto control. It intended to undertakeground strikes too only in those areas where the writ of the Pakistani Government no longer runs. The US has not so far undertaken any airand ground strikes in those agencies of the FATA, which are still under the de facto and the de jure control of the Pakistan army eventhough such control might be weakening. However, it had undertaken in the past air strikes against suspected hide-outs of AymanAl-Zawahiri, the No.2 to Osama bin Laden, in the Bajaur Agency.
12. What the Pakistanis want is that the US should not undertake any ground strikes even in those areas of South and North Waziristan,where its writ no longer runs. This poses a dilemma for the US. The Pakistani security forces continue to be engaged in severe clashes withthe Taliban in the Swat Valley of the NWFP and in the Bajaur Agency of the FATA. Despite the use of air strikes by the Pakistan Air Forceand of helicopter gunships, the Pakistani security forces have not been able to overcome the resistance of the Taliban in these areas. Inthe Bajaur Agency, the TTP is also being aided by elements from Al Qaeda.
13. The fighting has been going on intermittently in the Swat Valley for over six months now and in the Bajaur Agency for nearly six weekswithout the Pakiastani security forces being able to prevail over the TTP. As such, till they prevail in restoring the authority of theGovernment in these areas, the Pakistani security forces are not in a position to undertake similar operations in the two Waziristans torestore the writ of the Government. Taking advantage of this, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have stepped up their operations in the Afghanterritory from these areas, which are under their effective control.If the US does not put down their sanctuaries in the two Waziristans, theNATO forces and the Afghan National Army will continue to bleed.
14. From the vague and contradictory statements coming out of Islamabad and Washington DC as to what was really agreed to during thetalks of Admiral Mullen, one could assess that while the US has not agreed to abandon the revised rules of engagement reportedlyapproved by Bush in July, it has assured Pakistan that these rules will apply only in the areas under the effective control of Al Qaeda and theTaliban in the two Waziristans and not to other areas of the FATA. Future operations of the US special forces will show to what extent thisassessment is correct. (20-9-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )