A roundup of the Nato plans about Afghanistan and the entire region
By Aimal Khan
With the change of weather, the political temperature in and around Afghanistan is changing too. A new round of decisive offensive is on the cards and both sides are preparing for war. The ongoing policy revision drill in the United States is near completion and observers expect some drastic changes not only in its Afghanistan but Pakistan policy as well.
The US policy makers have started considering Pakistan a central front in the 'war on terror.' The policy has yet to be unveiled but the recent statements of US high-ranking officials suggest that the new policy envisages a tighter control of the Afghan-Pakistani border, raising non-military assistance to Islamabad and linking military aid to Pakistan's performance in fighting against extremism. Pakistan could face mounting pressure in the coming days over its role in the 'war on terror'.
Amid the US announcements of military and civilian surge in Afghanistan, one thing is crystal clear that the new US administration is poised to say goodbye to the Bush-era policies.
The US has recently ordered the deployment of 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan on top of the 38,000 already positioned there. Other countries have about 30,000 soldiers helping the Kabul government in stabilising the country. The US is also planning to send hundreds of civilian officials to Afghanistan as part of the new strategy in a sort of "civilian surge." The focus is gradually shifting from military to political solution of the Afghan crisis.
The new Afghan policy will contain an exit strategy, reconciliation and greater emphasis on economic development. The strategy will also include boosting the size and quality of the Afghan police force for reducing the burden on the US and coalition forces over time.
The growing pressure for an honourable exit strategy from Afghanistan is visible not only in the US corridors of power but also in the capitals of its NATO allies. A key NATO meeting is scheduled in the first week of April and crucial and important discussion regarding Afghanistan is expected.
Talks with the Taliban and the withdrawal option, once considered unfeasible and outrightly rejected by the western countries, are being discussed at the highest policy level. Even a top United Nations envoy has advised US President Obama to start a dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan. "I am favourable to that. Reconciliation is an essential element. But it is important to talk to the people who count," Kai Eide, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan told France's Le Monde newspaper.
The strategic game, ensued for control over the natural resources in the region and its transportation routes, is entering into a new phase. Besides grand designs of global powers, regional actors have their own agendas. Afghanistan has turned into a battleground for proxy wars between global and regional actors. It is yet to be seen whether the results of new policies will drift towards more regional and international rivalries or reach some kind of accommodation of each other's genuine strategic interests.
The presence of suspected militant networks and bases in tribal areas and illegal cross-border movement, however, is inviting US and allies' anger and criticism and is putting pressurise on Pakistan for taking effective measures against militancy and extremism.
While narrowing the focus on Pakistani border areas, President Obama recently said that the "destabilising border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan was a big military challenge and the hiding al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives using the region as a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan were a big problem. "This is going to be a tough nut to crack. But it is not acceptable for us to simply sit back and let safe havens of terrorists plan and plot," he said.
Officials in the USA and the UK did not rule out a 9/11 like attack on its positions emanating from these areas. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown disclosed that the core of al-Qaeda has shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan and UK will take the war against terror "to a new level". He added that al-Qaeda is still active in Afghanistan, but the threat has crossed the border and that over two thirds of the plots threatening the UK were linked to Pakistan.
Recently, the US arranged extensive high-level deliberations between Afghan and Pakistani officials. Besides diplomats and ministry of foreign affairs' highups from US, Afghanistan and Pakistan, high-ranking military and intelligence officials also participated in these deliberations. It was aimed at increasing intelligence-sharing among Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan and boost border surveillance and improving coordination between all the stakeholders concerned. With US assistance, more Torkham-like "coordination centers" are expected to be built on the Pak-Afghan border. The results of these deliberations are still to be seen.
But the recent US announcement about the extension of drone attacks to Balochistan suggests that the US has so far failed to achieve the required level of cooperation from its non-Nato ally.
With the 'war on terror' entering into a critical phase, the US administration seems to be losing faith in the present political setup in Pakistan.
The disturbance and unease, demonstrated by some powerful western quarters during the recent political crisis and triggered by the disqualification of main opposition leaders by the Supreme Court, was worth-seeing. The western powers cannot tolerate instability in Pakistan where they need Pakistan's full attention and cooperation in the 'war against terror.'
Once again the US authorities' reliance on the military establishment has increased in this regard.
The new US administration is facing a dilemma; neither can it ignore the importance of Pakistan's role in the 'war on terror' nor is it satisfied with Islamabad's role in countering and rooting out the al-Qaeda. Also it does not want to push Pakistan to the wall by pressurising it to do more.
After getting disappointed with Pakistan's performance and growing suspicious about some of its "rogue elements" alleged links with militants, the US is reportedly developing its own channels rather than completely relying on Pakistani agencies. The precision rate of drone attacks has significantly increased. It is open secret now that two of Pakistan's air-bases, put under the control of US Special Forces, are being used for attacks in Pakistani border areas.
Apparently, the Obama administration is opting for a regional approach to the Afghan crisis and it envisages some kind of role for Iran, China and India. The US administration has invited Iran to a regional conference on Afghanistan expected to be held later this month. The Indian involvement in Afghan affairs remained one of the critical points of interest for Islamabad. Keeping its interest and potentials in view, the new American administration is asking the Indians to share some of the security related responsibility in Afghanistan besides reconstruction.
On many occasions in the past, Pakistan has formally and informally registered its concerns to US authorities over India's alleged role. Due to this, Washington has reportedly asked India to keep a low profile. Even the Afghan government has been advised by the US to keep its ties with India within certain limits.
Pakistan has not heartedly welcomed the appointment of special envoys by its western allies which excluded Kashmir from their agenda and mandate. Also, some of the countries did not even bother to consult Pakistan in these appointments.
Whether these new policies will bring the desired results or not, the emphasis on political options and favouring the regional approach are steps in right direction.