The American-led NATO mission in Afghanistan began with the stated objective of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven. President Barack Obama restated that in his speech at West Point earlier this month that the overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and its allies in the future. “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.”
With 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at an estimated yearly cost of $30 billion, it means that for every Al Qaeda fighter, the US will commit 1,000 troops and $300 million a year.
Obama also made it clear that the US “cannot tolerate a safe-haven for terrorists whose location is known, and whose intentions are clear.”
A day after this policy statement, Fareed Zakaria (Editor Newsweek ) mentioned during a CNN discussion one of the locations – the Taliban Quetta shura – as a possible source of trouble for Afghanistan and underscored that the real challenge lies in Pakistan.
Taken together – from Barack Obama to Hilary Clinton to Richard Holbrooke to Admiral Mike Mullen to Senator John Kerry to Fareed Zakria – they all sing in unison when pointing fingers at Pakistan as the most troublesome link in their Af-Pak equation and thus deserving greater attention because of the following perceptions:
Safe havens in Pakistan fuel the Afghan insurgency (Waziristan);
1. Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership is hiding in Pakistan (Quetta and FATA);
2. Terror groups attacking India, Afghanistan and US-led troops are using Pakistani territory ( Kashmir, Muridke near Lahore, Quetta and North Waziristan);
3. Sections of the Pakistani military establishment maintain contacts with, and support, some of the groups (Lashkar-e Taiba, Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network in North Waziristan);
4. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall in the hands of extremist elements; and
5. The military establishment continues to hold sway over the civilian government.
Even a cursory look at the above makes it abundantly clear that Pakistan, and its military in particular, remains the prime suspect, and thus the likely target as the US troop buildup begins in Afghanistan by the turn of the year.
On December 6, the Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke dropped the first strong hints about the “unfolding of the new plan”. Holbrooke told Fareed Zakaria 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,” Holbrooke said. “To me the most important issue for our success is dealing with the sanctuary in Pakistan.”
This leaves little doubt that despite offering a long-term partnership to Pakistan and a US commitment to the cause of democracy, the Obama strategy – if we 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.
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 rumours on the activities/presence of private security agencies such as Xe (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp obviously give way to suspicions and fears within Pakistan. These also stoke more anti-US emotion, also within the security establishment as many wonder why the Americans would sound weary of the army and its affiliated organisations 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 it 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 defence secretary suggesting the timeline was open to review by December 2010.
It would be interesting to see whether the high-on-rhetoric Obama plan works wonders on the civilian side – the promise of working with the local leadership, governors and civil society (if one exists in Afghanistan).
But if 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. Holbrooke had charted this journey to serious implications – the shifting of the 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 US-NATO supply routes from Karachi to Torkham and to Chaman. This will not only suck in additional Pakistani security forces but also add to the cost of cargo which will mount after all 30,000 additional US troops arrive in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the government in Islamabad is pre-occupied with the fallout of issues like the National Reconciliation Order. The president is embattled and surrounded by controversies resulting from that; the prime minister is too meek to take charge as the de jure and de facto chief executive. Both top civilians seem to lack the 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 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, Pakistan’s perilous journey, compounded by the ever changing tactics of the invisible enemy, will continue.
(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.”