We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan…
We cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear. (President Barrack Obama, Dec 1, 2009)
A day after this policy statement by President Barrack Obama, a chorus began rising from important power centers within the United States. Fareed Zakaria (Editor-Newsweek) mentioned one of the locations – the Taliban Quetta Shura – during a CNN discussion as a possible source of trouble for Afghanistan’s problems and underscored that the real challenge lies in Pakistan.
Senator John Kerry and several others made similar references to the terror havens and locations inside Pakistan. Topping them all, on December 6, the Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrook, dropped the first strong hints what amount to the “unfolding of the new plan”. Holbrook told Fareed Zakria (Newsweek Editor) in a CNN interview that “safe havens in Pakistan” were a problem bigger than corruption and chaos of Afghanistan.
“I have to say that corruption is critical to our success, but it’s not the governing issue in this war,” special US envoy Richard Holbrook said in an interview with screen media.
“To me the most important issue for our success is dealing with the sanctuary in Pakistan.”
For over a week from Obama to Hilary Clinton to Richard Holbrook to Admiral Mike Mullen to Senator John Kerry to Fareed Zakaria – all sang in unison when pointing fingers at Pakistan for following perceptions:
a) Safe havens in Pakistan fuel the Afghan insurgency (Waziristan)
b) Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership is hiding in Pakistan (Quetta and FATA)
c) Terror groups attacking India, Afghanistan and US-led troops are using Pakistani territory (Kashmir, Muridke near Lahore, Quetta and North Waziristan)
d) Sections of the Pakistani military establishment maintains contacts with, and supports, some of the groups (Lashkar Taiba, al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network in North Waziristan)
e) Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall in the hands of extremist elements, and
f) The military establishment continues to hold sway over the civilian government
A cursory look at a to d makes it abundantly clear that Pakistan, and its military in particular remain the prime suspect, and thus the likely target as the US troops’ build up begins in Afghanistan by the turn of the year.
This leaves little doubt that despite offering a long-term partnership to Pakistan and a U.S commitment to the cause of democracy, the Obama strategy – if we at all can call it a strategy – speech at best reflected the clichéd perception of Pakistan within the United States – ostensibly a continuation of the controversial Kerry Lugar Bill (Mark “SEC. 203. LIMITATIONS ON CERTAIN ASSISTANCE” which is almost entirely focused on the conduct of the Pakistani military establishment including its contacts with terrorists at “known locations” to complete cooperation in nuclear matters).
Also, the entire American leadership as well as its CIA-led establishment continues to vent doubts about Pakistan’s nuclear programme and systematically circulating fears of extremists laying their hands on these weapons of mass destruction for attacking American interests.
This hysteric projection on the Pakistani nuclear arsenal – coupled with the string of news and rumors on the activities / presence of private security agencies such as Xe (ex Black water) and Dyna Corps obviously give way to suspicions and fears within Pakistan. These also stoke more anti-US American emotion, also within the security establishment as many wonder why the Americans would sound weary of the army and its affiliated organizations despite over eight years of cooperation on and around the Durand Line in addition to the inland cooperation that resulted in scores of al Qaeda operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubaida, Adil Aljazeeri and so on.
The new US plan is not likely to produce results that might allow the US to begin a phased withdrawal by July 2011 because this brings with the prospect of more civilian casualties (already close to 50 percent Afghans say they have been directly or indirectly affected by the military-militant conflict). The pullout plan has already triggered a heated debate in Washington with Robert Gates; the defense secretary suggesting the timeline was open to review by December 2010.
Viewed against the American perceptions of Pakistan listed above, the implications of the US surge in Afghanistan for Pakistan are likely to be pretty serious. Holbrook had charted this journey to serious implications – the shifting of war theatre to Pakistan – in March, when Obama announced the controversial Af-Pak Strategy.
With the military already committed in Swat, Bajaur, and South Waziristan, involving several divisions, it would not be unexpected if the army also heads toward North Waziristan (where the Haqqani network is reportedly located). The US would most probably use violence inside Pakistan and a string of fresh attacks on the coalition forces inside Afghanistan to achieve that objective. This could also, as a consequence, dent the credibility that the army has won through its operations.
Secondly, the spike in military activity inside Afghanistan – Paktia, Paktika, and Helmand – will most likely accelerate the militant movement across the Durand Line, thereby straining the already stretched army – traditionally concentrated on its eastern border facing about six Indian strike corps.
Escalation in conflict in the border areas – ground offensive in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan plus increased aerial and drone strikes (for which Robert Gates had already secured additional funding) in Waziristan, will mostly likely result in more violence in mainland Pakistan, thereby also straining the US-NATO supply routes from Karachi to Torkham and to Chamman. This will stretch not only suck in additional Pakistani security forces but also add to the cost of cargo which will mount after all the 30,000 additional US soldiers arrive in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the government in Islamabad is pre-occupied with the fall-out of issues such as the amnesty law (National Reconciliation Order). The president is embattled and surrounded by controversies resulting from the NRO, the prime minister is too meek to take charge as the de jure and defacto chief executive. Both top civilians seem to lack a vision that could help in extricating the country from the looming crisis – or at least put it on the path to crisis-management. The army –as has been the case in the past – will only do fire-fighting. Its crisis-management is limited to tactical solutions, largely devoid of politico-strategic vision even if it sincerely wanted to take the country to new horizons.
Unless the politicians wake up and lead the country from the front, coordinate with the armed forces, forge a consensus response to the Obama Plan and convey it with one voice, it will be pretty hard to prevent Pakistan from slipping into further chaos and uncertainty caused by the the ever changing tactics of the invisible enemy.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”