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A Failed Afghan Strategy

By Imtiaz Gul

Wall Street Journal, Asia, September 21, 2010,

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gen. David Petraeus and AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrook met in Islamabad late last week to figure out how to fix the mess in Afghanistan. Officials portray these meetings as routine brainstorming sessions. Yet there is no denying the effort to stabilize the country is in crisis, given the surge in violence and an extremely low turnout in the parliamentary election Saturday.

Afghans are paralyzed by fear, and the American top brass is frustrated at the failure to show any tangible gains. Mr. Karzai is resentful of the high-handed U.S. approach, and Pakistan is struggling with the consequences of an overbearing counterinsurgency campaign, complicated by devastating floods. All the stakeholders feel like they are getting nowhere.

This frustration is the result of a U.S. approach that centered more on money and military muscle than long-term strategy. Newly released material shows that the mistakes began in the days after the 9/11 attacks.

Two days before the meeting in Islamabad, the National Security Archive in Washington released several memos from 2001 that shed considerable light on the ups and downs of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship since the 9/11 attacks. The documents suggest that despite joining hands in the antiterror war in Afghanistan, Washington and Islamabad never trusted each other.

Equally revealing are some warnings contained in discussions between former Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin, Richard Haas, Pakistani intelligence officials and unnamed sources. "We will not flinch from a military victory…but a strike will produce thousands of frustrated young Muslim men, it will be an incubator of anger that will explode two or three years from now," former Inter-Services Intelligence chief Gen. Mahmud Ahmed told Ambassador Chamberlin on Sept. 23, according to a 12- page document entitled "Islamabad 5337." He expressed his reservations after Amb. Chamberlin had "bluntly" ruled out a dialogue with the Taliban, saying the time for it was finished as of Sept. 11. Gen. Mahmud also requested the ambassador "not to act in anger."

Gen. Mahmud, remember, was forced into premature retirement by Gen. Musharraf under pressure from Washington. He was suspected of involvement in a $100,000 wire transfer to 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. And since his retirement, he has become a preacher for the fundamentalist group Tablighi Jamaat.

Nevertheless, he has been proven correct. Nine years since the U.S. and allies unleashed the war on the Taliban and al Qaeda, all the stakeholders are exploring ways to reconcile with or "flip" Taliban militants to stem the tide of radicalism.

One has to wonder how things might have turned out if Washington had heeded Gen. Mahmud's warning. The consequences for Pakistan since October 2001 have been nightmarish. Particularly since 2007, thousands of angry young Muslims, inspired by al Qaeda's pan-Islamist and anti-U.S. rhetoric, have trained in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas and swelled the ranks of radical outfits such as the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan and Lashkare Jhangvi. Hundreds have blown themselves up in suicide bombings across Pakistan, killing thousands of innocent women and children as well as security personnel—all in the name of jihad against the "infidels occupying Afghanistan."

Another mistake was failing to put enough emphasis on the FATA areas. In one memo, Ronald E. Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, warned as far back as in 2005 that "if the [al Qaeda] sanctuary in Pakistan were not addressed it would "lead to the re-emergence of the same strategic threat to the United States that prompted our [Operation Enduring Freedom] intervention" in 2001."

"The 2005 Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan was a direct product of the four years that the Taliban has had to reorganize and think about their approach in a sanctuary beyond the reach of either government," Mr. Neumann said, according to the declassified documents. The sanctuary was obviously the FATA lands where Osama bin Laden and his cohorts settled down after their humiliating defeat by the U.S.-led coalition.

The memos explain how a porous and mountainous region spread over 27,200 square kilometers turned into a sanctuary for al Qaeda and its Afghan affiliates. Initially "the tribes in [FATA regions] were overawed by U.S. firepower" after 9/11, and this provided the Pakistan army a window of opportunity to march in. But they quickly became "no-go areas" again where the Taliban could reorganize and plan their resurgence in Afghanistan, the papers quote Mr. Neumann as saying.

FATA did turn into a haven for al Qaeda, where it found local and foreign allies and facilitators to launch attacks on the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. FATA also became the birthplace for the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan, a vicious al Qaeda auxiliary that rose in the mountains of the Waziristan region. This is where Faisal Shahzad, the man behind the May 1 Times Square bombing attempt, received his terrorist training.

For FATA and its residents, the past few years have been a painful and frightening ordeal. Operation Enduring Freedom and the hunt for al Qaeda plucked these ultraconservative and practically lawless regions from obscurity and turned them into the central battlefield of the war on terror. Had conservative Islamic groups been turned into allies instead of enemies in 2001, the result might have been far better.

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk