Mar 22, 2009

A change of strategy for the US

THE winds of the United States’ Pakistan policy have changed, and our government better hunker down to avoid getting swept over. The recent announcement of President Barack Obama’s Afghan plan struck a markedly different note than previous policy initiatives — they’re no longer pretending that it’s about us. The main thrust of Obama’s ‘central front’ policy is to ensure that Afghanistan and Pakistan are prevented from becoming launching pads for terrorist attacks against the US and its allies.This relatively achievable goal has been stripped of all frilly rhetoric about strengthening democracy, liberating women and championing freedom. From the US perspective, the issue has been reoriented from solving a problem to managing it. In other words, the US has placed the ball firmly in the Pakistan government’s court to devise localised strategies to tackle spreading militancy and extremism.Over the past few weeks, high-ranking US and European officials have emphasised that Obama’s Afghan plan aims to protect the West, rather than ‘fix’ this region. In February, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates explicitly stated, ‘our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the US and allies.’ To that end, the US is considering negotiating with the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, asking them to control the presence of Al Qaeda in South and Central Asia in exchange for the withdrawal of US and Nato forces.No doubt, this plan suits the US just fine: in the tussle for regional prominence, the Taliban will happily foil the plans of Al Qaeda, which it has largely refrained from partnering in the previous years. But the plan also turns the Taliban into a viable negotiating partner, thereby emboldening them and setting the precedent for what future interactions with the Pakistan government will look like. Think now of Swat, where democracy was shelved in favour of the peace-for-Sharia deal.Innumerable articles published in the local and international press have belaboured the point that residents of Swat are living by the TNSM’s dictates, too terrified to contradict the reigning wisdom that Sufi Mohammad has fulfilled their desires for Islamic law and peace in the valley. Will such circumstances become commonplace if the Taliban are led to think that tit-for-tat deals will define governance for large swathes of Pakistani territory in the coming years? Our civilian population surely deserves better.Moreover, such deals will likely result in increased Saudi involvement. In January, a Saudi intelligence chief reportedly visited Islamabad to talk to both government and Taliban officials and Saudi Arabia has offered financial support if the Taliban distances itself from Al Qaeda. Ideological affinities will prompt the Taliban to take up these offers, resulting in stronger ties with Riyadh and the further ‘Saudi-isation’ of Pakistan, which has already occurred to the detriment of our heritage.On another note, Obama’s Afghan plan also draws a distinction between ‘incorrigible’ and ‘reconcilable’ elements within the Taliban and Al Qaeda. US Vice President Joseph Biden said some days ago that between 100 and 1,000 militants — about five per cent of the total — in Pakistan are ‘hard core’, deserving of military action to take them out.He argued that up to 70 per cent of insurgent foot soldiers can be persuaded away from their militant objectives because they’re in it for the money, rather than to serve an ideology. Another 25 per cent are supposedly on the fence. In order to better reflect this ground reality, US policy now aims to provide ‘incentives’ to win over those militants who pick up arms in lieu of a day job.Assuming these figures are true, the plan to buy off cash-strapped militants helps the US tidy matters up enough to justify an exit strategy, but leaves Pakistan in an even bigger mess. If it comes to out-spending the US, the Taliban will do what is necessary to raise funds to keep recruits on board. Drug trafficking, which is already rampant in Afghanistan, would escalate and spread into many parts of Pakistan. Kidnappings with exorbitant ransoms will become increasingly frequent.In Karachi, bank robberies over the past two years have also been traced to the Taliban. Meanwhile, in Peshawar, senior police officers have reported incidents in which wealthy businessmen have received letters from militant organisations, suggesting that ‘donations’ for jihad be made available — or else. If the militants begin to feel the pinch, they will resort to blackmailing and other measures. Sadly, Pakistan’s over-extended law-enforcement agencies are not ready to counter criminality that may result from a US-militant bidding war.And what of the 25 per cent that remains on the fence? US army officials have made it clear that the military effort against the handful of ‘incorrigible’ militants will continue, meaning that targeted drone attacks will increase, and perhaps even extend to places such as Quetta, where recent reports suggest Taliban commanders have relocated.The sustained use of force will result in more civilian casualties and collateral damage that may urge borderline militants to go over to the hard-line. What will the US do if the ranks of ‘incorrigibles’ swell? A wider military campaign against certain Taliban forces will make it harder for the ‘reconcilable’ Taliban to maintain their accords with the US and Pakistan government. If they change their mind and again join hands with hard-core elements, they will do so flush with cash and with free reign in the absence of US and Nato troops.There is also the possibility that Pakistan becomes a battlefield where ‘incorrigibles’ fight it out with ‘reconcilables’ perceived to be turncoats, now on US payrolls. Indeed, the US distinction between different kinds of militants could escalate turf wars between extremist organisations. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is not the same as Lashkar-i-Islam, Harkatul Mujahideen, Lashkar-i-Taiba et al. The belief that one group is benefiting from an unholy alliance with the West could spark infighting that resembles the persistent clashes between Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq.Ultimately, Obama’s Afghan plan may be a case of too little, too late. Since Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid proposed the idea of negotiating in December 2008, militants have been emboldened by small victories such as Swat. The fragility of Karzai and Zardari’s governments has also been amply demonstrated in the meantime. Now, extremists believe they are winning the war against foreign forces and stooge governments and are extending their fight into places such as Dir. Bargaining with them now that they’ve had a taste of power could be the least strategic strategy.

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