By Munir Akram
There are good reasons to conclude that the “new” US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced by President Obama on 1 December will fail. But it could have serous consequences for Pakistan and the region.
First, the objectives of the strategy are too broad and opaque. Last March, President Obama’s emphasis was on defeating and eliminating Al Qaeda. Now, the aim is also to “roll back” the Taliban insurgency. To eliminate Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, it must be separated and isolated from the Taliban “sea” in which it is currently hiding. But, the US troop surge will be mainly directed against the Taliban insurgency. It will push Al Qaeda and the insurgents closer together, making it more difficult to isolate and target Al Qaeda.
Second, the strategy is mostly a military plan. It fails to address the motivation and causes of the Taliban insurgency, which derives mainly from Pashtun alienation and disempowerment and is now emerging as a Pashtun liberation movement. The Taliban and other Pashtun insurgent groups cannot be “peeled off” to side with a government in Kabul that is dominated by the Tajik and other warlords the Taliban were fighting prior to the 2001 US intervention or with a foreign army supporting this regime. The Taliban may not enjoy significant popular support. But, they are mostly Pashtun and better placed to secure local support and cooperation from common people in the Pashtun regions.
Third, the additional 30-40,000 US-NATO troops may be able to clear and even temporarily hold some of the areas in the South and East of Afghanistan. But, the troop numbers will still be entirely insufficient for sustained control over Afghanistan’s vast deserts, valleys and mountains. (The Soviets could not do this with 140,000 troops plus an effective Afghan Army of 80,000.). In fact, the McChrystal plan envisages defending civilian population centres and withdrawing from “indefensible” outposts including those along the border. As a result, the areas under Taliban and insurgent control are likely to enlarge not contract after this surge.
Fourth, the aim of “transitioning” security responsibility to the Afghan Army in three years is an impossible benchmark. President Karzai has said so. Apart from the admitted difficulties and costs of training, the question is whether a sufficient number of Pashtuns can be found to join a 240,000 strong Army. If not, it will continue to be largely composed of recruits from the non-Pashtun regions. Unless it is ethnically balanced, the ANA will be rejected and fought as an alien force by Pashtun insurgents.
Fifth, the parallels drawn between the Iraq “surge” and the current escalation are inappropriate. Whether the surge in Iraq was successful remains to be finally determined. The Sunni tribes in Iraq turned on foreign Al Qaeda elements in order to gain the political and military influence to counter the growing power of the Shias and Kurds. Afghanistan’s tribal and ideological conditions are very different. And, the Taliban are not being offered any credible inducement to discard their links with Al Qaeda. On the contrary, they are the main targets of this surge. Winning their cooperation through force is unlikely.
Sixth, the expansion of aerial attacks against Al Qaeda and Taliban “leaders” and training camps may achieve some tactical success. But, slain leaders and rudimentary training camps can be quickly replaced. With the Taliban also being targeted, reliable intelligence on the location of Al Qaeda leaders is likely to dry up. Without such intelligence, aerial strikes are likely to result in incorrect targeting and high civilian casualties, losing rather than “winning hearts and minds”.
Seventh, as is already evident, the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan will be difficult to sustain over time. In the short-term, the support of the US Congress, and a slim majority of Americans, has been secured partly by indicating a short timeline for withdrawal. Other NATO governments are being cajoled to commit additional troops (7,000) in the face of opposition from the majority of their peoples. This tenuous support is likely to erode over the coming months as casualties mount, costs increase and the military, political and economic benchmarks set out in the strategy are unmet. Faced with an expensive, open-ended war, domestic pressure will intensify in Europe and the US to bring the troops home.
Although President Obama’s speech did not dwell on this, it is evident from the leaks to the US media, that the onus is to be placed on Pakistan for the success of the new US strategy. The US “surge” will obviously push more of the Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents into Pakistan, who it would then be asked to deal with. Pakistan will also have to assume responsibility for securing the border and protecting the larger US-NATO supply lines.
Reportedly, Pakistan has been asked to undertake military action against the Taliban groups led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbedeen Hikmatyam and Mullah Omar (and the so-called “Quetta Shurra”) although these groups are currently not fighting Pakistan. Pakistan’s acquiescence is sought for more intense US air strikes against a larger number of Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the FATA as well as NWFP and Baluchistan. For good measure, Pakistan is also asked to advance India’s agenda by taking action against pro-Kashmiri militant groups.
The consequences of this for Pakistan are not difficult to project.
One, wider military operations will severely stretch the capacity of the Pakistan Army, which has already deployed 150,000 troops on the western frontier. It would jeopardize the success of the ongoing operations in South Waziristan and adjacent areas against the TTP and other insurgents who are attacking Pakistan with help from Indian and Afghan intelligence;
Two, it will escalate retaliatory strikes against Pakistani civilian and military targets from a wider range of militant groups;
Three, it will revive the general perception that Pakistan is fighting America’s war and thus erode the existing national consensus to confront and defeat the TTP and other groups targeting Pakistan;
Four, it will, inevitably, require the movement of more troops from the Eastern border, further diminishing Pakistan’s ability to deter and repel possible Indian military action which has been repeatedly threatened in the event of another Mumbai-like incident.
If Pakistan does not take the demanded actions, the US has threatened it will do so unilaterally. A “strategic partnership” of “limitless potential”, promised by Secretary Clinton, cannot be forged in a crucible of coercion.
In fact, the limitations of such a “partnership”on offer are evident from the “incentives” offered to Pakistan i.e. US support for a “dialogue” with India, (not a fair solution for Kashmir; nor even an end of India’s repression of the Kashmiris, or stopping Indian interference in Baluchistan and FATA). Also, undefined “defense cooperation”, (whose limitations Pakistan should be well aware of, not least in the wake of the conditionalities incorporated in the Kerry-Lugar Bill). Finally, additional economic assistance (whose cumbersome delivery and limited impact is evident from Pakistan’s past history.).
Pakistan’s response to the US strategy should reflect its own national interests and the sentiments of its people. It should be formulated in consultations between the Government, Parliament and the armed forces.
From Pakistan’s perspective, it would be unwise to agree to a blanket escalation of military and police action simultaneously against all Taliban and militant groups. Pakistan’s priority must be to finish the job of putting down the anti-Pakistan TTP militants. Pakistan must also display determined opposition to wider, unilateral US air strikes on its territory and insist on joint control of all strikes against jointly determined Al Qaeda targets.
Even within these parameters, Pakistan’s cooperation should be offered only in exchange for tangible and immediate US support for Pakistan’s national objectives: an end to Indian-Afghan interference in Baluchistan and FATA; a Kashmir solution; a military balance between Pakistan and India; parity with India on nuclear issues; transfer of equipment and technology for counter-terrorism; unconditional defense and economic assistance; free trade access.
At the same time, Pakistan, in its own interest, should take the lead to promote a political solution to the Afghan and Pashtun insurgency. This could be in the form of reconciliation initiative with all Pashtun and Taliban groups. Such an initiative would need to be undertaken though credible intermediaries, e.g. a commission consisting of respected Pashtun and tribal leaders and some other eminent Islamic personalities. Through such mediation, agreements could be evolved with the Taliban and other insurgent groups for a cessation of hostilities, support for economic development, creation of a genuine Afghan national Army, a decentralized political governance structure – in exchange for the progressive and complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and continued economic support for Afghanistan and Pakistan. A political plan for Afghanistan, based on such a reconciliation effort, should be discussed and agreed, specially with Saudi Arabia., Iran and other Islamic countries as well as Pakistan’s consistent geo-political partner — China.
The outcome of this approach may be messy. It may not respond to Western “values”. But it stands a better chance of restoring peace in the region, dismantling Al Qaeda and securing the graceful exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan — which are now part of the problem, not the solution –than the new US strategy.
The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to the UN.