US policy in Afghanistan has left many there and in Pakistan with few options, making the Taliban seem all the more attractive.
Jailbreak in Pakistan shows Taliban in a resurgent spring
Last week, in a dramatic display of strength, about 150 Taliban militants armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades and rockets stormed a prison in Bannu district of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was the start of the spring offensive. The subsequent escape of about 400 prisoners points to the growing strength and rapid reorganisation of Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants in the lawless border areas.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility, and a TTP commander later claimed that about 150 prisoners reached Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, while local authorities claimed to have recaptured 34. The escaped militants include Adnan Rasheed, the mastermind of an assassination attempt on former president Pervez Musharraf, who will rejoin the TTP and enhance its operational capacity.
Formed in 2007, the TTP has a close association with the Afghan Taliban. The hard-core militants who escaped from Bannu jail could be instrumental in launching the Taliban's spring initiative in Afghanistan; the same day as the jailbreak, heavily armed Taliban attacked the diplomatic enclave in Kabul and tried to storm parliament in a rare coordinated attack spanning cities across eastern Afghanistan.
Although Pakistan's army has launched a series of operations against the TTP, it is still the strongest militant group in the tribal belt along Afghanistan's border. The group has carried out suicide attacks across the country killing thousands of civilians and hundreds of Pakistani officials - allegedly including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto - over the past five years.
But the storming of Bannu jail was a rare event in the decade-old war. The strengthening and reorganising Taliban militants in Pakistan's lawless tribal region also pose a new challenge to the United States, which has already announced its withdrawal from Afghanistan within the next two years. The Americans want to conclude the Afghan war endgame on their own terms.
The jailbreak in Bannu, which is a gateway to North Waziristan, could push the US towards a further dilemma about its withdrawal. The US will be seriously considering the option of having permanent military bases in Afghanistan to counter Al Qaeda-linked groups.
There are many factors that continue to strengthen the militants. The rifts in the US-Pakistan alliance serve the interests of both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Those relations reached their lowest ebb following a cross-border Nato attack on Pakistani posts in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. In retaliation, Islamabad shut down supply routes through its territory and asked the US to vacate the country's Shamsi airbase, which was being used by the CIA to operate drones.
The US-Pakistan alliance has been weakened by a trust deficit, scepticism and a continuing blame-game. Many in Washington believe that Islamabad is part of the problem, rather than a partner in the "war on terror", while many in Pakistan are deeply sceptical of the US war. It is widely believed in Pakistan that the US has found a scapegoat in Pakistan for the failure of its policies in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's assistance and role could be critical as the US winds down the war. An uncooperative Islamabad, on the other hand, makes it difficult for Washington to end the conflict on its own terms. Pakistan holds the key to the logistics. The region's geography gives the country a frontline role in any geo-strategic plan. Before the political row last November, Pakistan had been the major supply route for the international missions in Afghanistan for the entire war.
The attack on the jail should be an eye-opener for leadership in both Washington and Islamabad. Allies, if they are still, must be on the same page. The US strategy against the Soviet occupation and communist expansionism in Afghanistan succeeded during the 1980s because of that alliance. It remains to be seen whether the two capitals can find the same common ground again.
The US has been launching drone strikes as a key plank of its strategy against Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Pakistan's tribal areas along Afghanistan border. Those areas include the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which comprises the seven agencies of Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. As a rule, the agencies tend to be the most backward and least developed, lack an industrial base, and few employment opportunities.
The US drone attacks are generating sympathy for the militants and public anger against both Islamabad and Washington due to civilian casualties. Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants are taking political advantage of civilian casualties and recruiting more and more young fighters.
The Bannu prison break shows how futile the US strategy has been. The United States will not win a war of attrition in the tribal areas, either by drone strikes or Pakistan's efforts to imprison militants. What is needed is a strategy to stem TTP recruitment.
Drone attacks have brought more destruction to already underdeveloped areas and multiplied the number of recruits. The people have little choice - economically or socially - but to join the Taliban. If a fraction of the Pentagon's budget was spent on economic development and poverty alleviation on both sides of the border, it will surely have better results.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider a development analyst in Pakistan and author whose latest book is The Economic Development of Balochistan