Baitullah Mehsud clarified his position on violent jihad in Afghanistan while he negotiates for autonomy in the border regions of Pakistan. Declaring that “Islam does not recognize boundaries”, the Taliban leader promised continuing jihad in Afghanistan regardless of the relationship with Pakistan. The statement demonstrates even more clearly the capitulation in Islamabad:
Top Pakistani Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud on Saturday said jihad, or holy war, would continue in Afghanistan, despite peace negotiations between the militants and Islamabad.
“Islam does not recognise boundaries and jihad in Afghanistan will continue,” he told a group of reporters invited to his stronghold of South Waziristan tribal district near the Afghan border.
The Taliban, driven from power in Afghanistan by a US-led invasion in 2001, are active on the border tribal zone, where the Pakistani army has fought the Islamists since 2003.
The new government in Islamabad launched talks with local Taliban soon after winning elections in February, amid concerns that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s military approach was spawning more violence.
If Mehsud’s version of Islam respects no national boundaries, then we may be tempted to use the same approach. If the Pakistani Army withdraws from the federally-administered tribal areas (FATAs), then the new government has essentially ceded sovereignty in these provinces. Afghanistan and its allies has a right to defend its border and territory, and if Pakistan will not take responsibility for ending the attacks, then NATO has an opening to perform the task itself.
That will still be a dangerous strategy, even though it may be all that’s left. The Pashtun tribes see national boundaries as an artificial obstacle on Pashtun lands, drawn by outsiders for the purpose of destroying Pashtun society. More than just Taliban terrorists feel that way, but the Taliban is the most effective force for defending what Pashtuns see as a hereditary claim to a vast swath of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At some point, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the West have to find some way to satisfy legitimate Pashtun political concerns while separating those from radical Islamism. They may be so entwined to make that impossible, which creates a huge problem for the long-term conduct of the war in both countries. Until then, NATO and Kabul have to make it clear that the border will be enforced, and hostile acts will find retribution on either side of that border — and more so if Pakistan won’t take responsibility for the FATAs.