THE THEATRE OF WAR
Published: July 5, 2011 - 14:09 Updated: July 11, 2011 - 14:55
US and Pakistan are caught in a bind over the Taliban
Syed Moazzam Hashmi Islamabad
The pieces of jigsaw in the Af-Pak tangle revolve around economic interests. Pakistan cannot sustain the interests of the US if there is no stability on the political and economic front. Hence, the US must use peaceful
means instead of expanding the theatre of war in the region.
Pakistan has always seen Afghanistan as an element of its India policy while it sought to protect its western border in response to insecurity on its eastern border with India. However, both the US and Pakistan seem to be caught in a bind over certain issues, including talks with Taliban, and launching a full-scale military operation in North Waziristan — a safe haven of the insurgents. There are several issues that need to be addressed for any progress in the region and for achieving the desired objectives in the post-2014 scenario when most of the US-NATO forces would withdraw from Afghanistan.
It is something that NATO allies have inured themselves to, with the “conditions and not a calendar” — a point of concern for all regional stakeholders. The truth is, the Afghan situation calls for moving beyond the security and law and order approach.
Pakistan, reeling under severe domestic and diplomatic crisis, is concerned about a myriad things, including talks with Taliban, militant/NATO incursions, attacks on NATO supply trucks on its soil, and the precision strikes by US drones in North Waziristan. There are several questions which continue to haunt the Pakistani establishment, like the details of the talks with Taliban, and about the role that Afghan heavyweights Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani would play under the new circumstances.
To secure its future role in the war-torn country, Pakistan is sensitive about any move regarding Afghanistan, particularly in the political and security spheres. On June 20, 2011, Pakistan reportedly expressed grave concern on being ‘deliberately’ kept in the dark by the US on its recent talks with Taliban, and the US approach on the Afghanistan peace and reconciliation process. The motive was to contain the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, which the US has smoothened by restricting India to development projects. India, at this point, wants to secure its multimillion dollar investments with an objective of multiplying it further.
In the backdrop of two rounds of dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan under the ‘Abu Dhabi Process’ last year and early this year, such shifts ring alarm bells for Pakistan. Particularly in view of the ‘do more’ mantra and the bumpy bilateral relationship with the US, especially with reference to war on terror and Pakistan’s reservations over initiating a full-scale military operation in the restive North Waziristan, which remains a major bone of contention.
However, bypassing Pakistan in developments regarding the post-2014 withdrawal might backfire since Pakistan believes that it has ‘legitimate stakes’ in Afghanistan. Kabul never had a pro-Pakistan government, except for the brief stint of Taliban that ended in 2001 after the US raided the country in search of Osama bin Laden.
Since then, Kabul and Islamabad have been engaged in an unending blame game over the incursions of militants. The situation seems to be intensifying as the US chalks out a strategy to withdraw its troops, gradually, after a decade-plus of insurgency in one of the most difficult and dangerous terrains in the world.
Frequent violation of Pakistani airspace by NATO gunship helicopters, and sporadic terrorist attacks on NATO caravans shipping supplies for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stationed in Afghanistan through Chaman in the southwest Balochistan province and Torkham in the northwest, are two major issues causing friction between the US and Pakistan.
Drone strikes in South and North Waziristan have caused intense disturbance in the socio-political milieu, putting the military establishment and civilian government in an awkward position. The CIA-controlled unmanned spy predators are gradually expanding their strike range deeper into the tribal areas of Pakistan, the latest in Mohmand Agency, one of the de facto seven tribal agencies that border Afghanistan, except Orakzai. There is a belief that an understanding exists between the American and Pakistani establishment on the drone strikes to eliminate rogue elements, and that the strong statements by the ruling class are just a face saving exercise.
The Pakistani military seems reluctant about launching a full-scale military operation in the invincible, rugged terrain of North Waziristan. Despite the US pressure, the establishment is worried that it would have serious ramifications on the polity.
For long, the US has been asking Pakistan to encircle militants and block all routes to North Waziristan, in order to stop the movement of militants to Kandahar, a stronghold of the anti-US militia. A strong possibility of the cornered militants penetrating deep into Pakistani cities with their deadly suicide bombers holds Pakistan from taking such drastic action. Due to strategic and logistical considerations, Pakistan wants good terms with the North Waziristan based Haqqani network and other ‘lesser evils’.
Reportedly, of the total 19 divisions of Pakistan’s over half-a-million strong military, nearly eight divisions are currently engaged in counter-terrorism. Two of the divisions are in South Waziristan, one is deployed in North Waziristan, two in Swat and Dir, and the others are in Orakzai, Mohmand tribal agencies and other areas, fighting homegrown insurgency.
Army chief General Ashfaq P Kayani had declined a steamroller kind of operation despite an affirmative nod for a possible operation in North Waziristan during the first round of the Pakistan-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington DC last year. The army is still keeping its foot down.
The question is, who is the US talking with? Certainly, it’s not the Haqqanis. It could be Mullah Omar. Indeed, Pakistan is relying more on the Haqqani network to keep its hopes alive in the post-2014 Afghanistan. It is perhaps one of the reasons holding Pakistan from waging a full-scale operation in North Waziristan.
About the ultimate US realisation that it is dialogue and not war that would work in Afghanistan, one wonders about its positive outcome. If the 1,700 ‘agreeable’ Taliban that the US is trying to talk with are compared with the still invincible 40,000 south-based ethnically Pashtun Taliban, some interesting facts are revealed. The Taliban, it is said, can be doused with money, something that has never worked with Afghans in the past. Most of these untamed Taliban fighters are based in Pakistan, which forms the basis of its frustration over the US attempts to bypass it in the process. Also, success with Taliban would put Hamid Karzai on the exit lane — this has compelled him to be polite with Pakistan.
It remains to be seen as to what role guerrilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar will play. During his recent visit to Islamabad, Karzai was flanked by Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president, and the other key figure besides Hekmatyar who played a major role in the jehad against the soviets. These two will play an important role in the current crisis. Ironically, they do not support many of Pakistan’s policies, particularly those after the US withdrew from Afghanistan after dismemberment of the Soviet Union.
If Pakistan needs to be more flexible towards the nagging issues that concern the US and its neighbours, Washington also needs to support and expand the Pakistan-Afghanistan jirga process as a way to bring together local leaders from both sides of the border. The US has to work with the grain of Pakistani self-interest, that is, if it wants any progress in the reconciliation process.
Syed Moazzam Hashmi is a political and security analyst based in Islamabad, and former political affairs advisor to the US Consulate General in Karachi