Trouble on the Afghan-Pakistan Border
Maybe, Congressman Thaddeus McCotter notes dryly, the United States has no right to preach to other countries about border security.
"After all, look what happens on our own southern border with Mexico," points out the Michigan Republican.
But American lives depend on whether Pakistan takes policing their border with Afghanistan -- which is three-quarters the size of the U.S.- Mexican line -- seriously. And the dangers on the Asian border far outweigh anything going on in the U.S.
McCotter recently returned from a bipartisan congressional delegation trip through the region, led by Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman, a trip that included meetings with both Afghan and Pakistani heads of state.
The trip took place as the numbers of US and other NATO troops were on the rise; for the first time, exceeding the number of casualties in Iraq.
"Why are the numbers so high? It's because NATO forces are going into places where they weren't going before. They are now in a position to get to the border with Pakistan, trying to get to places that have become sanctuaries for terrorists. You can consider it either a good sign or a bad sign.... that fighters from other Arab lands are choosing go to Afghanistan rather than Iraq to wage war," McCotter said in a telephone interview with PJM during his trip.
For anyone invested in the success of the mission in Afghanistan, it's obviously a bad sign -- and needs to be dealt with on both sides of the border -- which is why the delegation's meetings with the new Prime Minister and chief of the army in Pakistan focused to a great extent on how to stop the flow of arms and jihadists into Afghanistan via the porous border, which on the Pakistani side, includes the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the haven for terrorists where Osama Bin Laden has been believed to be hiding for years. It is a region where the Pakistani government has preferred to negotiate settlements with the extremist forces -- not root them out.
For now, the Pakistani military is cooperating with this policy for political reasons.
"The military wants public support to deal comprehensively with the nation's problems -- it doesn't want to act alone. Public opinion in Pakistan right now is focused on fuel, food insecurity, worries about economic stagnation and their relationship with India, not on border security and Afghanistan. With a government is in a holding pattern, and elections on the horizon, everyone is sensitive when it appears that money and time and attention is diverted from the needs of the population."
The political limbo comes after the traumatic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the troubled election that followed and the problematic lame-duck status of President Pervez Musharraf, whom the delegation did not meet with."That was a decision made by Chairman Ackerman. Musharraf has been marginalized, the reality was that we wanted to meet with Prime Minister and chief of the army, and we did not want to exacerbate the political situation."
He experienced himself why the population was concerned about its own well-being: in his hotel room and during meetings, the room would suddenly go dark -- the rolling blackouts that are an ongoing feature of the summer.
The challenge as far as the U.S. is concerned is convincing the Pakistani population that controlling their border and tightening security is something they need to do for their own survival and well-being.
"Part of it is the badly named "Global War on Terror." That implies that other countries are acting as a proxy army for US -- and that is the way it is perceived in Pakistan, and it is resented. But the truth is that what the warlords are trying to carve out for themselves poses a direct threat to Pakistan itself. More and more, you have incidents where suicide bombers kill Pakistanis. Slowly people are beginning to understand that it isn't a proxy war, it is their war, too. But we need to speed that up. The question is how do you get that public support, how can we partner with the Pakistani government, help them with things that would have a positive impact on population, and then deal with security and problem of Afghanistan."
Too much blatant pressure on the new Pakistani government regarding border security, he fears, may backfire.
"The one thing we don't want is to make the situation worse. The political situation is on hold, there is turmoil happening there, and it is a population that is not particularly pro-US. We don't want to do anything precipitous or do something like you are undermining the sovereignty of the Pakistani government. I think they are making a reasonable effort on the border given the political realities in Pakistan at the present time. But clearly they could do more."
The delegation also visited Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, and Pakistan's neighbor India. In every country they visited, a similar theme recurred -- the need for the US to remain sensitive to the domestic worries of the population as they look for partners in their struggle against terror. And the dominant worry is the same everywhere -- energy.
"The number one issue everywhere is energy and economy. I see this as the first great crisis of globalization. This is not the 70's where a country like the US can unilaterally transform the situation to meet its energy needs. The impact on everything is being felt and it is being felt everywhere. And countries will need to work together to solve it."