The seventh anniversary of 9/11 was marked by the Bush administration leaking that it had authorised US soldiers to strike against al-Qaeda-Taliban targets inside Pakistan. This is symbolic of two shifts in the US-led war against terrorism. First, that the centre of Islamic terror is no longer in Arab countries, the centre lies in the badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, Washington is trying to hammer out a counter-terrorism strategy with the new rulers of Islamabad — and this strategy is coloured with greater impatience with Pakistan’s half measures.
Under Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad had perfected a policy of differentiating between Islamic terrorist groups. Some of them, like Jaish-e-Mohammad and anti-Shia militants, it acted against for a mix of domestic and US-related reasons. Others, like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba it attempted to preserve as leverage against India over Kashmir. The most dangerous part of this policy has been the preservation of various Taliban groups whose goal is to overthrow the US-backed government in Kabul.
The US was prepared to live with this selective war on terrorism as long as al-Qaeda was kept on the run and Iraq consumed most of its energies. But al-Qaeda and the Taliban have ratcheted up the violence in Afghanistan. Iraq is moving to the backburner of US concerns as more soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan. India should welcome this shift in policy, while watching carefully how it evolves under the next US president. Washington has, in effect, accepted New Delhi’s argument that one cannot differentiate from ‘bad terrorists’ and ‘less bad terrorists’. Almost all of the militant groups in the Afghan-Pakistan border area see the US, India and, increasingly, the regime in Islamabad as one seamless enemy.
The US’ s ultimate goal is to persuade Pakistan that holding onto chunks of the militant network to pressure Kabul or New Delhi is no longer a viable policy. As India has argued, the “jehadi infrastructure” needs to be eradicated root and branch in Pakistan. The humiliation of US soldiers violating its border at will may help push Islamabad in this direction. However, it is at best one step and one policy in what will be the next and possibly most difficult phase of the war on terror.