In the Arena

Into Waziristan

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“People talk glibly of ‘the total disarmament of the frontier tribes’ as being the obvious policy,” wrote the young Winston Churchill, who gallivanted, a bit too gleefully, with a 19th century British expeditionary force through the areas where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now ensconced. “But to obtain it would be as painful and as tedious an undertaking as to extract the stings of a swarm of hornets, with naked fingers.”

And now the Pakistani Army is making yet another effort to achieve what no one ever has in Waziristan, part of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in the Northwest Frontier Province. One can only wish them well. This is the offensive that the U.S. government was hoping for, made necessary by the surge of terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past few weeks. As Jane Perlez notes, the Pakistani Army has tried this three times before and failed–but this time the stakes are higher, given the recent advances the Taliban have made.

The operation, in fact, raises more questions than it answers. Here are two: What does this say about the Pakistani military’s long-standing relationships with militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Madrasa and Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura? Does General Kayani believe he can walk the line between terrorist groups he likes and those he doesn’t?

Second question: What influence does this have on the war in Afghanistan? It could go either way. It could force many of the terrorists back across the border in Afghanistan…or it could convince some of the foreign fighters, including the leadership of Al Qaeda, that Pashtunistan has gotten too hot for comfort and it’s time to move elsewhere–like Yemen or Somalia (which are more exposed and accessible, and probably wouldn’t be safe for the very top leadership of Al Qaeda)?

In any case, this offensive, along with the pending Afghan runoff election, are two factors that will be integral to President Obama’s strategic decisions about the future of our military efforts in the region.