U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul on Wednesday, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been dispatched to Islamabad.
The trouble is that on September 16 a spokesman of the Pakistani Army said they were "ordered to open fire if U.S. troops launch another air or ground raid across the Afghan border."
This decision by the Pakistani military may foil the U.S. president's plan to step up the campaign in Afghanistan, if not provoke a U.S.-Pakistani war.
President George W. Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow U.S. Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, according to senior American officials.
The new orders reflect concern about safe havens for al-Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan. But have they come too late?
Judging by the media, the operations are to be carried out before the November presidential elections in the United States, which puts special emphasis on the political aspect of Bush's new plan.
American experts have been pushing for such raids into Pakistan, or more precisely into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), better known as the free tribal zone, since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. They have lately become increasingly impatient, claiming that the president wasted too much time considering the idea..
They could be right. Such raids into Pakistan could be effective, given several conditions.
First, they should be carried out as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which would make them legitimate.
Second, there should be no pause in coalition forces' actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan that might give al-Qaeda a chance to become entrenched in the free tribal zone.
And third, they should have been launched before the Iraqi campaign to collect detailed information about the Afghan-Pakistani border regions where the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were trained.
Had the U.S. started these raids in Pakistan in 2001, or 2002 at the latest, they would not have provoked such a huge outcry. Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, where the free tribal zone is located, is one of the most volatile regions in Pakistan. It can be described as a state within a state. It has always been like that, yet the Taliban had never enjoyed such sympathy there as they do now.
Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, said during his latest meeting with Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher, who heads the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in the U.S. State Department, that foreign troops would never be allowed to carry out operations in Pakistan.
The position of Pakistan, once America's most loyal ally in the fight against international terrorism in the region, is easy to understand. Islamists, in particular the Taliban, have grown so influential in the province that the Pakistani authorities fear they may seize power in Peshawar, the capital city of the province, even though Pakistan's 11th Army Corps, reinforced by border troops and police, is deployed there.
In April 2008, the ruling coalition of Pakistan said it was ready to negotiate with Pushtu leaders, although it knew that many of them supported the Taliban.
The Kabul authorities and some people in the White House thought Pakistan was deliberately hindering the stabilization of Afghanistan.
One reason for that conclusion was the statement made by Beitullah Mehsud in late May. This usually reclusive Taliban leader in Pakistan said during a news conference in his home base, South Waziristan, in the free tribal zone: "Islam does not recognize boundaries."
He went on to claim that a jihad against the occupation forces [meaning the U.S. and ISAF troops in Afghanistan] was a sacred duty of all true believers.
He also promised to bring war to Afghanistan, which is easy to do since South Waziristan borders on Afghanistan's Khost and Paktika provinces.
Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said on June 15: "When [militants] cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and to kill coalition troops it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same."
Washington expressed quiet support for its Afghan ally.
Karzai has since softened his stance regarding Pakistan, possibly because the neighboring country now has a new president.
So, Afghan troops may or may not go to Pakistan and kill Pakistanis.
But does Asif Ali Zardari, the new Pakistani president, have enough power to fulfill his promise (or rather the promise of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination was blamed on Beitullah Mehsud) to wage an "uncompromising struggle" against the Pakistani Taliban?
I rather doubt this. The army is a social institution to be reckoned with in Pakistan, for objective and historical reasons. It has not expressed its support for Bush's plan; on the contrary, it has threatened to "open fire if U.S. troops launch another air or ground raid across the Afghan border."
Pakistan's army commander General Ashfaq Kayani, who shares President Musharraf's belief that foreigners must not be allowed to carry out operations in Pakistan, has not retired like his president.
Pakistan is now considering all the pros and cons in Bush's plan. And although the U.S. has always been Pakistan's main sponsor, the last say belongs to Islamabad, or rather the Pakistani generals.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.