TIME foreign affairs

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Tragedy Fuels the U.S. Intervention Machine

John McCain
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticizes the Obama administration during a Jackson, Miss., runoff rally in support of Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran at the Mississippi War Memorial in Jackson, Miss., June 23, 2014. Rogelio V. Solis—AP

Whatever happened in Ukrainian airspace doesn’t immediately or obviously involve the United States.

Apart from the probable cause of its destruction, we know almost nothing about the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 that was “blown out of the sky” yesterday over eastern Ukraine, according to Vice President Joe Biden. President Obama confirmed today that one American was among the dead and that separatists with ties to Russia are allowing inspectors to search the wreckage area. In today’s press conference, Obama stressed the need to get real facts — as opposed to misinformed speculation — before deciding on next steps.

Yet even with little in the way of concrete knowledge — much less clear, direct ties to American lives and interests — what might be called the Great U.S. Intervention Machine is already kicking into high gear. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

After a decade-plus of disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (including almost 7,000 American soldiers) and constitutionally dubious and strategically vague interventions in places such as Libya, it is well past time for American politicians, policymakers, and voters to stage a national conversation about U.S. foreign policy. Instead, elected officials and their advisers are always looking for the next crisis over which to puff up their chests and beat war drums.

Which is one of the reasons why Gallup and others report record low numbers of people think the government is up to handling global challenges. Last fall, just 49 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in Washington’s ability to handle international problems. That’s down from a high of 83 percent in 2002, before the Iraq invasion.

In today’s comments, President Obama said that he currently doesn’t “see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic states.” Such caution is not only wise, it’s uncharacteristic for a commander-in-chief who tripled troop strength in Afghanistan (to absolutely no positive effect), added U.S. planes to NATO’s action on Libya without consulting Congress, and was just last year agitating to bomb Syria.

Despite his immediate comments, there’s no question that the downing of the Malaysian plane “will intensify pressure on President Obama to send military help,” observes Jim Warren in The Daily News. Russia expert Damon Wilson, who worked for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, says that no matter what else we learn, it’s time to beef up “sanctions that bite, along with military assistance, including lethal military assistance to Ukraine.” “Whoever did it should pay full price,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the head of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, says. “If it’s by a country, whether directly or indirectly, it could be considered an act of war.”

The immediate response of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2012 Republican presidential, was to appear on Fox News’ Hannity and fulminate that America appears “weak” under the leadership of President Obama and to imply that’s why this sort of thing happens. If the Russian government run by Vladimir Putin or Russian separatists in Ukraine are in any way behind the crash — even “indirectly” — said McCain, there will be “incredible repercussions.”

Exactly what those repercussions might be are anybody’s guess, but McCain’s literal and figurative belligerence is both legendary and representative of a bipartisan Washington consensus that the United States is the world’s policeman. For virtually the length of his time in office, McCain has always been up for some sort of military response, from creating no-fly zones to strategic bombing runs to boots on the ground to supplying arms and training to insurgents wherever he may find them. He was a huge supporter not just of going into Afghanistan to chase down Osama bin Laden and the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks but staying in the “graveyard of empires” and trying to create a liberal Western-style democracy in Kabul and beyond.

Similarly, he pushed loudly not simply for toppling Saddam Hussein but talked up America’s ability to nation-build not just in Iraq but to sculpt the larger Middle East region into something approaching what we have in the United States. Over the past dozen-plus years, he has called for large and small interventions into the former Soviet state of Georgia, Libya, and Syria. He was ready to commit American soldiers to hunting down Boko Haram in Nigeria and to capturing African war lord Joseph Kony. In the 1990s, he wanted Bill Clinton to enter that Balkan civil wars early and often.

In all this, McCain resembles no other politician more than the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, whose hawkishness is undisputed. Like McCain, Clinton has long been an aggressive interventionist, both as a senator from New York and as secretary of state (where her famous attempt to “reset” relations with Russia failed spectacularly when it turned out that the “Reset” button she gave her Soviet counterpart meant “overcharged” rather than the intended conciliatory term). In the wake of Flight MH17 being shot down, Clinton has already said that the act of violence is a sign that Russian leader Vladimir Putin “has gone too far and we are not going to stand idly by.”

For most Americans, the failed wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the folly of unrestrained interventionism. So too do the attempts to arm rebels in Syria who may actually have ties to al Qaeda or other terrorist outfits. Barack Obama’s unilateral and constitutionally dubious deployment of American planes and then forces into Libya under NATO command turned tragic with the death of Amb. Chris Stevens and other Americans, and we still don’t really have any idea of what we were trying to accomplish there.

No one can doubt John McCain’s — or Hillary Clinton’s — patriotism and earnestness when it comes to foreign policy. But in the 21st century, America has little to show for its willingness to inject itself into all the corners of the globe. Neither do many of the nations that we have bombed and invaded and occupied.

Americans overwhelmingly support protecting Americans from terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. They are realistic, however, that the U.S. cannot spread democracy or preserve human rights through militarism.

When the United States uses its unrivaled military power everywhere and all the time, we end up accomplishing far less than hawks desire. Being everywhere and threatening action all the time dissipates American power rather than concentrates it. Contra John McCain and Hillary Clinton, whatever happened in Ukrainian airspace doesn’t immediately or obviously involve the United States, even with the loss of an American citizen. The reflexive call for action is symptomatic of exactly what we need to stop doing, at least if we want to learn from the past dozen-plus years of our own failures.

President Obama is right to move cautiously regarding a U.S. response. He would be wiser still to use the last years of his presidency to begin the hard work of forging a foreign-policy consensus that all Americans can actually get behind, not just in this situation but in all the others we will surely encounter.

TIME Foreign Policy

Inside John Kerry’s Diplomatic Save in Afghanistan

Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014.
Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014. Jim Bourg—The New York Times/Redux

Up to one million might have died, an Afghan leader warned.

As the sun went down over Kabul on Saturday July 13, Afghanistan’s future hung in the balance. Accusations of fraud in the country’s recent presidential election had paralyzed the country’s politics and threatened to trigger a civil war that could destroy the progress America’s costly military and diplomatic efforts had delivered since 2001. The parties in the dispute had convened at the residence of the American ambassador in Kabul, but the two sides couldn’t reach agreement.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on the scene that Saturday evening just as key Afghan players were headed out to the patio for their evening prayers. Scheduled to depart 90 minutes earlier for Vienna, where he was to join the ongoing international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Kerry had delayed his departure to make a last ditch effort to broker a deal.

It was a dangerous moment, and not just for the Afghans. Without an agreement between second place finisher Abdullah Abdullah and the election’s declared winner, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan was at risk of an implosion like the one that enabled the Taliban to take power in 1996—creating a safe haven for Osama bin Laden to plot the 9/11 attacks. And Kerry’s visit defied the advice of other Obama officials who warned any diplomatic intervention on the U.S. part held “the risk of complete failure,” in the words of a senior official.

The details of how Kerry defused the stalemate, based on accounts from a half-dozen officials familiar with the talks, reveals an Afghanistan closer to the brink than many outsiders may appreciate. It also illuminates rare foreign policy win for Kerry and for an Obama administration staggered by months of setbacks, one whose importance has been overshadowed by turmoil in the Middle East and Ukraine. Finally, it shows how fragile the country remains as the U.S. prepares to withdraw the last of its combat troops later this year.

The crisis was the result of the inconclusive June 14 presidential vote to replace the longtime Afghan ruler Hamid Karzai. Abdullah, the losing candidate, was insisting the vote had been rigged to the tune of hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots. By mid-July, Abdullah’s supporters had threatened to create a kind of protest government. Rumors swirled of an armed rebellion, with the potential to ignite dormant ethnic and tribal rivalries. “We will accept death but not defeat,” Ghani’s running mate, the notorious ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, had recently vowed. “It was pretty frightening. People were preparing for civil war,” says one official.

On July 8 President Obama called Abdullah directly, warning that American aid to country could be cut off if he didn’t stand down. The call bought time but didn’t resolve the core dispute. “The president’s role was to intervene at a point where it looked like the dispute was threatening the stability of Kabul and the country. But that didn’t necessarily mean there was enough pressure to come to an agreement,” says one senior administration official. “Both candidates remained pretty dug in to their positions,” says another.

Kerry had arrived late on the night of July 10 from Beijing, diverting from his planned itinerary to Geneva for the Iran talks. Over the next three days, through long meetings, first with Abdullah’s camp, and then with Ghani’s, Kerry’s team hammered out a plan.

Afghanistan’s election commission, under international supervision, would audit every one of the eight million ballots cast in the June 14 vote (a runoff after an initial April 5 election.) The plan also called for a power-sharing arrangement that would give Abdullah an important role in the new Afghan government, potentially as a kind of deputy national leader. (The details have yet to be finalized and officials called reports of a European-style parliamentary system premature.)

A key asset in establishing the framework for the deal, officials say, was the relationship Kerry had built with the major players—Abdullah, Ghani, and also Karzai—over many years, dating to his tenure as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Abdullah contested a fraud-rife 2009 election that returned Karzai to power, Kerry rushed to the country for long meetings with both men after a distrustful Karzai refused to talk to the U.S. special envoy to the country, Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is even less inclined to trust Washington today, and rarely speaks with President Obama. But the Afghan leader does maintain a good rapport with Kerry.

“Obviously a lot of the machinery of this took place from the White House and by phone. But ultimately a large part of why this got sealed is that Kerry had built up a relationship with Ghani, Abdullah and Karzai going all the way back to 2009,” says Jonah Blank, an Afghanistan expert with the RAND Corporation

Though the framework of the deal had been hammered out over the previous two days, the decisive moment came that Saturday evening, at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham, after Abdullah and his retinue had finished prayers and broken their Ramadan fast. Ghani and his allies were elsewhere on the heavily fortified U.S. embassy compound; the two contenders for Afghanistan’s presidency had not yet met face-to-face.

Kerry had been buoyed by an earlier meeting with Karzai, who agreed to delay the country’s scheduled August 3 presidential inauguration, which a time-consuming audit of every ballot would require. But when Kerry arrived at Cunningham’s residence, Abdullah still wasn’t sold on a deal. Could he really trust an election process run by the government of Ghani’s ally Karzai?

Kerry pleaded with Abdullah to accept the deal. “I’m asking you as a friend to trust me,” he said. Kerry walked the group through several chapters in his life story, from the Vietnam War to the 2004 presidential campaign, and concluded by calling the meeting among the most important he’d ever attended. He urged Abdullah and his allies to consider the millions of Afghans who had voted despite Taliban threats—the Americans who had done so much for Afghanistan. “U.S. soldiers didn’t come here to fight and die to see this election fail,” Kerry said.

“You could tell that shifted the dynamic,” says an official who was present. Shortly after 9pm, Abdullah agreed to the deal.

Within half an hour, Ghani had arrived to clinch the agreement with his rival in person. The discourse between the Abdullah and Ghani camps had not been civil of late—at one rally, Abdullah’s running mate had called Ghani a name that roughly translates as “dried-up intestine.” But the men greeted each other warmly. If they felt personal hostility, says one official, “they did a good job of hiding it.”

As they headed to a midnight press conference, officials present say the men seemed to take pride in an agreement that had spared their country the threat of a nightmarish descent into chaos.

On July 16, President Obama opened his press conference announcing new economic sanctions against Russia by congratulating his Secretary of State for brokering the Afghan deal. Obama said it had preserved “the first democratic transfer of power in the history of that nation.”

In a conversation the day after Kerry’s departure, Ghani shared his relief over the outcome. The agreement, he said, may have saved one million Afghan lives.

TIME Military

Lawyer: Bergdahl ‘Deeply Grateful’ to Obama

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for nearly five years before being released in May. U.S. Army / Getty Images

Army sergeant held by Taliban believes President’s decision “saved his life,” his attorney Eugene Fidell tells TIME

No one’s heard anything yet from Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner-of-war freed in a May 31 swap for five Taliban leaders after nearly five years as a Taliban prisoner. He hasn’t spoken to the press—by all accounts, he hasn’t even spoken to his parents. But, in typical American fashion, he has retained—and spoken to—an attorney.

“Sergeant Bergdahl is deeply grateful to President Obama for having saved his life,” Eugene Fidell, retained a week ago by the soldier, told TIME on Wednesday.

Fidell has traveled to Texas—where Bergdahl has returned to active duty at a desk job in San Antonio following his “re-integration” back into the service—to discuss with his client the investigation into the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s abduction in 2009. The attorney declined to offer any insights into Bergdahl’s mood, legal defense, or relationship with his family. Bergdahl also has an Army lawyer.

Eugene Fidell Yale

But Fidell did suggest the case—now being investigated by a two-star Army major general—is more complicated than he originally thought. That’s saying something: Fidell is a prominent military-law expert who lectures at Yale Law School on the topic, and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“Before I was in the case, I was skeptical that the investigation called for a major general,” Fidell says. “I thought that a talented lieutenant colonel would be more than enough horsepower—I thought it was overkill.” Army officials say Major General Kenneth Dahl has yet to interview Bergdahl.

Fidell said he has changed his mind as he has dived into the case. “Based on what I now know about the complexity of the issues, which are in a number of spheres that I’m not going to get into, I understand why the Army thought that a general officer should be involved,” Fidell adds. “I now understand why management thought that it was a good idea to have a two-star officer doing this investigation.”

The lawyer, who has taken the case pro bono—without pay—declined to discuss the specifics that led him to change his mind. But Bergdahl’s case is complex: according to the soldiers with whom he served, Bergdahl simply walked away from his combat outpost in June 2009 before being captured by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some of those troops have called Bergdahl a deserter, and alleged that fellow soldiers died hunting for him.

Questions also surround the Army’s decision to allow Bergdahl to enlist, two years after he washed out of Coast Guard boot camp after only 26 days. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama for giving up five senior Taliban leaders for Bergdahl, now 28.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told TIME on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the swap was in the nation’s interest. “We were duty bound to bring him back, but I think we’re duty bound to bring him back in the right way,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. “What other opportunities were there for us to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release besides releasing these five high-ranking Taliban officials?…we did increase the risk to Americans and American interests by releasing these five.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Bergdahl is now free to come and go like any other soldier. “He’s free to leave base…he’s not under any particular restrictions,” Kirby said. “And I would remind you, he’s not been charged with anything.”

TIME justice

Dutch Supreme Court Blocks Extradition of Al-Qaeda Suspect to U.S.

NETHERLANDS-PAKISTAN-USA-JUSTICE
The lawyer of Dutch-Pakistani national Sabir Khan, Andre Seebregts (L), arrives in the courtroom of The Hague, on February 12, 2013. Robin Utrecht—AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. wanted to put Sabir Khan on trial in New York for supporting terrorist attacks against Americans in Afghanistan

In a setback for the Obama administration’s use of law enforcement to fight al-Qaeda, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands on Friday blocked the extradition to the U.S. of Sabir Ali Khan, a Dutch-Pakistani man wanted in New York for conspiracy to commit murder and support of al-Qaeda.

The U.S. believes Khan was involved in Taliban and al-Qaeda attacks against Americans in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province in 2010, according to U.S. court documents obtained by TIME. Khan was arrested by Pakistani forces in Sept. 2010, allegedly at the request of the U.S., and held at a secret prison where he says he was tortured.

Khan, whose mother was Dutch, has citizenship in the Netherlands and was eventually released to Dutch authorities and flown to Holland, where he was arrested. His Dutch lawyer argued that the government should determine whether Khan was arrested at the U.S. behest, and whether he would face a threat of further torture if he were extradited.

The Dutch Supreme Court Friday ruled that the extradition could not proceed because the Dutch Government had declined to look into the alleged U.S. role in Khan’s arrest. The Court, which did not address the threat of torture by the U.S., concluded “the Dutch State should have done some research in this matter,” says Dutch Supreme Court Spokeperson Mireille Beentjes. In blocking the extradition, the court stressed “the large interest of combatting torture worldwide,” Beentjes said, quoting from the court’s opinion.

Robert Nardoza, spokesman for the Eastern District of New York, where Khan was indicted on five counts in 2010, said, “We’re going to review the ruling by the Dutch Supreme Court and consider our options.”

Khan, who is in his late 20s, declined to comment when reached by telephone Friday. He remains free and living in the Netherlands. In January, he told TIME that while he suspects he is under constant surveillance, “Officially I have no restrictions on me.”

The case shows how the U.S. must increasingly rely on other states’ legal systems in countering terrorism as Washington attempts to wind down extraordinary powers granted to the president after 9/11. Those states are sometimes more or less aggressive than the U.S. would like, and counterterrorism officials are having to adjust as a result.

 

TIME Afghanistan

Forced Smile? Bergdahl Pictured With Taliban Commander

Bergdahl
An undated photo of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl with Badruddin Haqqani, the son of former Afghan Mujahideen commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani. @khorasan313

In a new salvo in the propaganda war with the West, a previously-unseen photograph of what appears to be Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl smiling alongside with a senior Taliban commander was posted to a Twitter account associated with the Afghan Taliban.

A slew of tweets posted late Wednesday claimed the former prisoner of war – who appeared thin and pale in the image – was treated well during his five years in captivity…

Read the rest of the story at NBC News

TIME Afghan civilian casualties

U.N.: Civilians Feel Toll of Afghan War as U.S. Withdrawal Nears

A victim's body lies on the road as Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Kabul on June 21, 2014.
A victim's body lies on the road as Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Kabul on June 21, 2014. Shah Marai—AFP/Getty Images

1,564 deaths recorded in the first half of this year, up 17 percent compared with 2013

A United Nations report released on Wednesday finds that civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose sharply in the first half of this year as they increasingly feel the brunt of war.

The report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), compiled as U.S.-led forces withdraw from a 12-year battle with the Taliban and amid a steep decline in security, finds that ground combat—now more than improvised explosive devices—is the leading cause of death and injury to civilians.

More than 4,800 civilian casualties were recorded in the first six months of this year. That figure includes 1,564 deaths, up 17 percent compared to the same period the year before. Child casualties associated with ground combat more than doubled—rising 34 percent to 1,071—while two-thirds more women were killed and wounded by ground engagements.

“The fight is increasingly taking place in communities, public places and near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with death and injury to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral,” said Georgette Gagnon, UNAMA’s Director of Human Rights.

Afghanistan’s unrest is increasing amidst the ongoing political crisis, as a disputed presidential election has created a tense stand-off between the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. Early results on Monday showed Ghani net 56.44% of the run-off vote on June 14, but Abdullah was quick to reject the outcome and claim it was marred by fraud.

Abdullah’s supporters protested in the capital, Kabul, on Tuesday and called on him to form a parallel government. Washington responded by saying it would pull both financial aid and security support if power was seized illegally.

 

TIME Education

Malala Day Video Tells the #StrongerThan Story Through Children’s Voices

“Once there was a girl who wanted to go to school….”

Correction appended, July 9

In preparation for worldwide Malala Day on July 14, 2014, the Malala Fund released this video of children telling the inspiring story of the Pakistani girl who dared to learn.

“This is a story of strength,” begins the clip. One child after another then picks up the narrative, telling the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who narrowly survived a Taliban assassination attempt while still a young teenager, after gaining attention as an advocate for girls’ education. Since then, Malala has become an international envoy for education and women’s rights.

“Malala Day is not my day,” she said in a statement. “It is the day of every girl and every boy. It is a day when we come together to raise our voices, so that those without a voice can be heard.”

The Malala Fund calls on people to use the #StrongerThan hashtag on social medial to tell their own story of overcoming oppression.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated Malala Yousafzai’s nationality.

TIME Afghanistan

Taliban Insurgents Set Blaze in Massive Field of Oil Tankers

Smoke and flames rise from fuel trucks after an overnight attack by the Taliban on the outskirts of Kabul
Smoke and flames rise from fuel trucks after an overnight attack by the Taliban on the outskirts of Kabul July 5, 2014. Mohammad Ismail—Reuters

About 200 tankers meant to support U.S. troops were lit on fire after a targeted Taliban strike

Taliban fighters ignited a massive fire in Afghanistan on Saturday, setting fire to 200 oil tanker trucks supplying fuel for NATO forces.

Some Afghan media reported that insurgents fired rockets at the tankers, but it is still unclear exactly how the fires started. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, Reuters reports.

The fires lit up the night with a deafening roar, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

“The number of tankers on fire is not yet clear, but based on preliminary reports from police around 200 tankers have been burnt,” Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the country’s ongoing presidential election. The results of the final round of elections will be reported Monday, while both remaining candidates have accused one another of mass voting fraud.

[Reuters]

TIME Military

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl Is Venturing Off Base as Part of Reintegration

Bowe Bergdahl
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Army shows Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl AP

Held captive by the Taliban for five years, he's now being reintegrated with society

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the prisoner of war in Afghanistan who recently returned to the U.S. after five years of captivity, is regularly going off post to dine, shop and do other chores, according to Lieut. Colonel Carol McClelland.

“He’s been doing it for at least a week,” the Army spokeswoman tells TIME, adding that it was a normal component of his reintegration into society. On visits to San Antonio, he has been accompanied by members of his reintegration team, including a psychologist, according to the Associated Press.

Bergdahl, 28, was shifted last week to outpatient care at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was freed by the Taliban on May 31 in a prisoner exchange for five senior Taliban officials held at Guantánamo Bay, and arrived in the U.S. on June 13. He was initially being treated in the U.S. at Brooke Army Medical Center.

As part of the reintegration process, the Army is increasing his exposure to people and social settings incrementally. It’s still unknown if his parents, who has asked for privacy since Bergdahl’s return, has visited their son.

The Army is still investigating circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s departure from his outpost in June 2009 before his capture.

With reporting by Mark Thompson

TIME Pakistan

Unbelievably, There Are Now Refugees Fleeing to Afghanistan

The Pakistani military’s offensive against insurgents in North Waziristan has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of Pakistanis concluding that Afghanistan is just a far safer place to be right now.

The Pakistani military has begun operations against Islamic insurgents in the North Waziristan region, delivering the offensive that Washington has been requesting for a decade, and sparking a massive exodus of refugees — some of whom are fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan to escape the fighting.

Militants, who have long inhabited the mountainous tribal area, have found themselves the target of heavy artillery bombardment and airstrikes for the past fortnight, in what the military’s PR chief Major-General Asim Bajwa termed “the beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan.”

Reports began to surface on Thursday in the Pakistani press that ground troops had started moving into North Waziristan to clear out the insurgent forces.

Washington says militants have been using North Waziristan for years as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and to wage a terrorist insurgency against the Pakistani state.

Senior members of the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda’s central command — along with a smattering of militants from as far away as western China’s Xinjiang province and Chechnya — are believed to be holed up in the area. All are on Islamabad’s kill list.

“For the military, there’ll be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network or any other militant group,” Major-General Bajwa told reporters during a press conference in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

The mountainous border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan has been home to martial tribes for centuries. However, the presence of heavily armed insurgents and foreign jihadis is the notorious legacy of American and Saudi intelligence agencies, who used the fighters as proxy forces during the clandestine war with Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“This is famously the powder keg, which has led to everything going wrong in the region and the beginning of heavily armed militant Islam,” William Dalrymple, the historian and author of nine books on South Asia, tells TIME. “Obviously in retrospect [it’s] one of the great mistakes of American foreign policy.”

The Pakistani secret service (ISI) is alleged to have helped insurgent elements fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, using those militant groups to maintain pressure on the newly formed government in Kabul, which they believed harbored pro-Indian sensibilities.

“The Pakistan Army, or elements within ISI, always continued to support the Taliban as a way of getting rid of the Karzai government and a way of installing a pro-Pakistani Taliban regime in Kabul,” says Dalrymple.

That policy appears to have backfired. In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban launched a fresh insurgency against Islamabad that to date has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis and at least 15,000 security personnel.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last year on the promise of peace talks with the Taliban, but any hope of negotiations has been extinguished by a recent string of humiliating attacks, including a brazen assault on Karachi airport, deep in the country’s commercial hub.

The perennially stretched Pakistani state is now attempting to deal with the massive humanitarian fallout from the new offensive. In the less than two weeks of fighting, more than 450,000 people have been internally displaced. Officials estimate that the number will surpass 500,000 soon.

In a bizarre reversal of the norm, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have reportedly flooded into war-torn eastern Afghanistan to escape the fighting on the Pakistan side of the border.

“The [Afghan] government estimates there are over 60,000 thousand for now,” says Babar Baloch from U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

The exodus has also ignited fears that the polio epidemic rampant in North Waziristan for two years could spread to other parts of the region.

Meanwhile, analysts have already begun to criticize the new military campaign for not being part of a broader vision of Pakistan’s future.

“There isn’t yet a clear national strategy,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. That means “operations are going to be tactical at best.” He adds: “The civilians were not brought in at the planning stage. And they’re not prepared in any way to take over from the military once the clearing has taken place.”

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