Sep 23, 2011

Pakistan at a crossroads again

Shafqat Mahmood The Haqqani network is like a bone stuck in our throats: can’t spit it out, can’t swallow it. With the US pressure ramped up to a level where threats of military strikes plus boots on the ground are being trotted out, the Pakistani leadership is at a crossroads. The choices with their pros and cons are anything but simple. Mount an attack on North Waziristan, where the Haqqani network allegedly has safe havens, and risk coalescing all Pashtun groups in Afghanistan against the Pakistani state. This would mean actually turning all Afghan ethnicities against Pakistan because the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others of the Northern Alliance already hate us. We have enough on our plate handling a tense relationship with India in the east. A hostile Afghanistan, with no one standing up for normal relations with Pakistan, would become a serious headache. The impact of such a development in the war against militancy within the country could also be significant. The Pakistani Taliban are already creating enough trouble. If they get the support of the Afghan Taliban, who have so far kept a distance if not been actually discouraging, and of other armed groups in Fata, who have been neutralised so far, it would create a near insurmountable challenge. The reluctance of the Pakistani leadership to take on the Haqqani network through a dangerous incursion into North Waziristan is thus understandable. But, this does create the risk of a possible conflict with the might of the US military. I still think the risk of an outright invasion by the US of North Waziristan is a remote possibility. Even air attacks through warplanes are unlikely because they create more media noise than drone attacks. And just after bombing another Muslim country, Libya, the third in the last 10 years after Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is unlikely to risk more negative publicity globally. Boots on the ground also seem unlikely because it is not enough to come in and do a hit and run. It would not damage anyone, other than Pakistan’s sovereignty, which would have its own consequences. But if ground were to be held, it would mean heavy deployment in a difficult region for an indeterminate period. The US public is not ready for it and perhaps America’s financial troubles make another long-term military involvement unfeasible. Drone attacks can and will be ramped up causing far greater damage and civilian casualties but they will not solve the problem. So, the choices are not easy for the US either. It would much rather lean heavily on Pakistan and make it do something that it is unable to do. It is understandable that all nations only look at their own interests. And the US interest in the Afghan game today is for Pakistan to become an active military partner and attack its enemies who are allegedly taking refuge on Pakistani soil. If this creates problems for it, than it is not the American’s headache. They have to look after their own interests and not bother too much about those of others. The intense US focus on the Haqqani group is surprising. Is this the only problem standing between it and victory in Afghanistan? The Haqqani network is important and has been for many years. It played a useful role in the war against the Soviets, with US support, and later controlled Paktika and Khost provinces of Afghanistan. Yet, it was never in the forefront during the Taliban rule with Jalaluddin Haqqani holding a minor cabinet post dealing with tribal affairs. Even now, the overall control of the Afghan resistance against the US is with the Taliban leadership headed by Mullah Omar. The fighting in Helmand and other Afghan provinces that has been so troublesome for the Americans is led by the Taliban. The Haqqani group plays an important role in particular areas, Paktika, Paktia and Khost and because of its proximity to Kabul has the capability to launch attacks in the Afghan capital. This is indeed very annoying for the Americans – and for the Afghans – but does it follow that this group is the only reason for US failures in Afghanistan? Or indeed, is Pakistan’s lack of action in North Waziristan the only thing standing between the US and victory? Any serious analysis of the issues the Americans face in Afghanistan would show that it is not so. Pakistan’s involvement can be helpful but not decisive. In the process it would be seriously destabilised and would have to deal with grave problems long after the Americans have tired of the conflict and left. In a rational world, it would be enough to make a solid argument for others to accept your point of view but this is a world of power camouflaged in plausible justifications to control the media narrative. Pakistan’s argument will not be accepted because the more powerful interlocutor has the luxury to consider only its interests. It is also useful in an election year in the US to have a scapegoat and blame whatever failures there are on it. Pakistan finds itself in this difficult position right now. It has little choice but to do something. There is of course the dangling carrot too because if one does the US bidding there are plenty of goodies in the shape of bilateral and multilateral aid. It is not easy to scoff at this in times of serious economic troubles. The time may have come to lay down a principle. Make it very clear to the Afghan groups be it the Taliban or the Haqqani network that we can no longer afford to allow them to use Pakistan as a base to attack Americans or Nato and Afghan government troops. If they have to fight, they should do so from within Afghanistan. In other words, they should shift their bases, if they have any, out of Pakistan. Sirajuddin Haqqani has already declared that his troops are based in Afghanistan and not Pakistan. To make this assertion visibly plausible Pakistan must occupy any of the ungoverned spaces as it did in South Waziristan. The time thus may have come to make a well publicised push into North Waziristan. The impression that this area is not within Pakistani government control has to be reversed. The Americans will have to understand that militant groups in these areas who are cooperating with the Pakistani state will have to be tolerated, with the proviso that they will no longer go across the border to launch attacks. This strategy is fraught with consequences but if carefully handled can navigate a middle path that can yield positive results. It is also time that the so-called terrorist sanctuary in North Waziristan is taken out as an excuse for the American failures in Afghanistan. In return, we should also seek zero tolerance for Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan and of course complete normalisation, indeed positive returns for the continuing friendship with the US.

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