Austin Bay

Pakistan is engaged in its own gap-closing process -- it has turned its military full-force on the Taliban. Pakistan's vigorous assertion of state sovereignty in the tribal areas along its Afghanistan border is a major political event. Instead of ceding sovereignty to the mountain tribes -- it's tough country to patrol and pacify -- Pakistan is now extending sovereignty, meter by meter, as its military pursues the Taliban.

The Pakistani government isn't driven by theory, however, but a will to survive. The 2008 attack on Mumbai, India, by Islamist terrorists was supposed to draw the Pakistani Army away from operations along the Afghan border and ignite a new Indo-Pakistani war. Instead, India presented Pakistan with an implicit ultimatum: Stop the Islamic terrorists, or we will do it.

The Taliban's depredations in the Swat Valley provided unconvinced Pakistanis with a stark choice between rule by violent tribal theocrats wedded to fossil sectarian isolation and rule by a corrupt, stumbling, autocratic, but globally connected, future-oriented and trying-to-modernize central government in Islamabad.

Don't expect Pakistan to close its tribal gap once and for all. That is a century-long project. Squeezing this gap, however, could produce a new psychological and political landscape in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Relentless pressure will force al-Qaida terrorists operating in the tribal areas to either surrender, die or flee. Bet on flight.

Which is why "patrolling nowhere" (a soldier's tactical version of "watching a strategic gap") will continue. This month Islamists calling themselves al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb fought with security forces in Mali. The middle of the Western Sahara is a big gap. Do events in Mali matter? Before Sept. 11, few Americans thought local politics in Afghanistan mattered.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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