Monday, December 7, 2009

The US about to poke a hornets' nest in Baluchistan?

The NY Times reports this evening that the US is putting heavy pressure on the Pakistani government to go after the Afghan Taliban who, the US says (and most experts seem to agree, even if the Pakistani military deny it), are ensconced in Pakistan, outside the tribal areas - and specifically, in Baluchistan and its chief city, Quetta.  Supposedly the US has not issued an ultimatum, but the message seems to be, you do it, or else we'll do it for you.

The only ways that the US could do this "for them" are (1) by inserting US forces, or (2) drone attacks.  The last time US troops crossed into Pakistan to go after "bad guys," the Pakistani response was vehement; it came perilously close to Pakistani copters firing on US troops.  Inserting US forces would not go down well.  Officially, Pakistani officials also oppose drone strikes; unofficially, they seem to be tolerated, if not encouraged.  But to this point, those strikes have been limited to the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.  The Afghan Taliban whom the US wants "taken out" are in Quetta, which lies in Baluchistan, a province on the other side of the country that extends eastward into  Iran.  Baluchistan is also the home of another Sunni radical group, Jundullah, that has launched terror attacks into Shiite Iran.  So far, Jundullah has mostly preferred to keep itself somewhat apart from the fight of the Pakistani Taliban against the Pakistan government.  But as a report in Asia Times last summer noted,
Jundullah has now become an active internal security threat for Pakistan. A raid mounted on a safe house by Pakistani police in January 2008 . . . unexpectedly captured several cadres of the TTP and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a well-known anti-Shi’ite sectarian group. Jundullah has also been implicated in narcotics smuggling across the border.

Pakistani media recently quoted analysts who feel that given the Pakistani army's ongoing offensive against [the now deceased] Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, his cadres may flee into Balochistan and join forces with Jundullah to mount a stand there against Pakistani troops. In fact, of all the groups in Pakistan's border region, it is Jundullah which has the terrain knowledge, tactical capacity and ideological indoctrination that could even render true Pakistan's fears that the US-led operation in Helmand province of Afghanistan could lead to a spillover of some of the Afghan Taliban into Balochistan.
It seems not at all a stretch to assume that if the US launches drone attacks in Quetta, (1) there will be considerable "collateral damage" to other residents of what is in fact a densely populated city, and (2) Afghan Taliban might leave Quetta and flee into Baluchistan. Will the US then launch drone attacks into Baluchistan?  Will such an act bring Jundullah into direct confrontation with an already weakened Pakistani government and an already over-stretched Pakistani military?  Could Pakistan's leadership survive this, as well as the outcry that such an obvious breach of Pakistani sovereignty would raise from a Pakistani public that has by and large turned very anti-US (as Hillary Clinton discovered so rudely during her recent visit)?

This is a hornets' nest that Mr. Obama ought to be very wary of poking.

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