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Interview: The man in charge of ousting the Taliban from Pakistan's tribal belt.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates nags the Pakistanis about clearing the Taliban from North Waziristan, the man who will actually be charged with doing it is the Commander of the 11th Corps of the Pakistani Army up here on the northwest frontier with Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Asif Yaseen Malik is just what you would expect: ram-rod straight, impeccable English, pressed uniform with knife-edged creases and a no-nonsense manner. He has served his country from the 19,000 foot heights of the Siachen Glacier, along the disputed Kashmir Line of Control, to the heat-hazed lowlands of the Punjab, with some military studies in the United States thrown in. His operational area stretches from the high country where the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas come together to the border with Baluchistan Province.
I met the general in Corps Headquarters here a couple of days after visiting his forces in the so-called lawless tribal areas. The Bajaur tribal agency, after having been over-run by the Taliban in 2007 and 2008, is no longer lawless, thanks to the General’s 26th Brigade and the Bajaur Scouts. What I saw there was the clear, hold and build that Gen. David Petraeus on the other side of the border can only dream of.
The general describes the frontier as a series of doors, passes through the mountains that, once entered, leads to access to other rooms. Of course the Taliban can climb through the windows, if you will, along goat tracks and ancient smuggling routes that no armies can ever keep completely closed. If Americans complain that Taliban hide out in Pakistan, so are the Pakistanis faced with Taliban who can retreat across the border to Afghanistan when being pursued from this side of the line.
Much of the trouble is with the line itself, a creation of the British who cared more about controlling the passes than about the people who lived there. Sir Mortimer Durrand drew his famous “Durrand Line” in 1893, dividing tribes the way Germans were once divided east and west. As Winston Churchill put it back then, “It is unfortunate for the tribesmen that our spheres of influence clash with their spheres of existence.” Since no iron curtain is possible in these mountains, however, tribesmen have simply ignored the line ever since, which has made trouble for all who would control here.
The general has 150,000 men here – 30 percent of the Pakistani armed forces, and, like most generals, wishes he had more, but is pretty sure he won’t get them. Gen. Petraeus could only wish for such a comparatively large number of troops to concentrate on an area that is only a tiny fraction of what he faces in Afghanistan.
What parts of the Taliban Pakistan would like to keep on good terms with, as a hedge against our withdrawal, is a matter above the generals pay grade. He is only interested in Taliban who wish to challenge the government’s control here. He says he has no doubt that he will eventually move into North Waziristan and when he does he will not distinguish between those who oppose him.
“I will not tell my troops to shoot X, but not Y,” he says, but not before he has secured his flanks by dealing with areas such as the unfinished business of South Waziristan to the north of Peshawar, the provincial capital, and in Mohmand to the south, for example. It has never been the desire of any commander fighting on the frontier to take on all the tribes at once. Also, Pakistan must get prepared for retaliatory terror in the lowland cities, Karachi and Lahore, and in the capital, Islamabad.
He sympathizes with what Petraeus is trying to do. “I am doing the same thing,” he said.
“The military has to create an environment for the civilian administration to move in,” he said, “to reach the point where the military plays a supporting role.”
But he is mystified by “what is the U.S. objective in Afghanistan, strategic or tactical.” The mission remains fluid,” he said. “Maybe somebody in Washington knows, but it isn’t clear to me here.”
His officers made the case to me earlier, that Petraeus doesn’t have nearly enough troops to clear, hold and build. It would take hundreds of thousands more, and foreigners can never really accomplish that, not with Afghans.
For one, Afghanistan has never been ruled by a central authority, the general says, and the ballot box is all right on a local level to express democracy, but maybe not appropriate to Afghanistan at the national level – a country split into so many competing ethnic and tribal factions.
Secondly, he says, the Afghan National Army is not up to the task and is years away from being so. Like the central government, it is too dominated by the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and the like. The Pahstuns, traditional leaders of Afghanistan, are under-represented.
The good news is that Afghans of different ethnicities have always managed to live together. Despite civil wars there is not, and hasn’t been, separatist movements, the general said. The Pashtun Taliban enjoyed a monopoly of power for six years. The Tajiks of the Panshir have enjoyed complete power. It might be possible to get an agreement to go back to the old system of diffuse and shared power, the general suggests. But that is not the job of the 11th Army Corp.