Jun 092008

Our claim that a multi-pronged strategy of political, economic and military engagement is being pursued in the tribal areas has little credibility for the simple reason that no concrete evidence of this policy’s implementation can be seen

While our political leadership remains totally preoccupied with the judicial crisis and the general public keeps clamouring for greater political leadership and action on the economic crisis, the most serious crisis of all — the situation in the tribal areas and along the Pak-Afghan border — does not appear to be moving in the right direction.

The visit to Kabul by our foreign minister last Friday provided an opportunity for the minister to reiterate Pakistan’s desire to promote a relationship with Afghanistan based on trust and understanding. He sought to assure them that “Pakistan is engaged in talks with only those elements that are peace-loving and want stability in their region”.

All he got in return was a serious talking to by both President Karzai and Foreign Minister Spanta about the “destructive consequences for both countries” of what they believe are the negotiations Pakistan is conducting with the Taliban. Afghan scepticism, which also reflects the thinking in Washington, is understandable.

Our newspapers keep carrying statements by Baitullah Mehsud and his spokesman denying any agreement on ending the use of Pakistani territory for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And the international media keeps carrying official or anonymous comments about increased attacks in East and South Afghanistan following the implementation of the ceasefire between the Pak Army and the Pakistani Tehreek-e Taliban. The outgoing American commander of forces in Afghanistan had even talked of intelligence reports that pointed to a further influx of foreign fighters into the tribal areas.

Our claim that a multi-pronged strategy of political, economic and military engagement is being pursued in the tribal areas has little credibility for the simple reason that no concrete evidence of this policy’s implementation can be seen.

The Political Parties Act has not been amended to allow the political parties to function in the tribal areas; and while the FATA Secretariat may well have drawn up development plans for the area nothing appears in the press to indicate that the Rs9 billion provided by Pakistan or the $150 million provided by the Americans for yearly developmental expenditure is being expended on projects that are increasing employment opportunities in the area.

Instead we have grim pictures in our media of abandoned schools and unmanned hospitals.

Separate but related reports highlight the fact that even while one of six planned trilateral (Pak-Afghan and coalition forces) intelligence coordination centres has started functioning in the border areas, the setting up of the others remains in limbo and, more importantly, the high-level coordination meeting between heads of the Afghan, Pakistani and coalition forces has been postponed twice at Pakistan’s instance and no new dates have been scheduled.

So far the Americans have maintained that they are adopting a “wait and see” attitude towards the negotiations with the tribals. But their scepticism is evident as is the apprehension articulated to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Kabul that the Pakistani Taliban will, as in the past, use the ceasefire and any subsequent agreement to regroup and to increase their cross-border activity while quietly welcoming into their ranks extremists from other parts of Pakistan and from Central Asia. If the agreements reached do not clearly forbid cross-border activity, their worst fears will be realised.

Within the tribal areas the situation also continues to deteriorate. The problems in Khyber Agency have now become a serious hindrance to the passage of fuel and other requirements of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Americans have been negotiating with the Russians and now have agreement that non-lethal goods can transit through Russia and presumably some Central Asian countries bordering on Afghanistan. This is of course a much more expensive route and is being adopted only because the trans-Pakistan route is becoming increasingly uncertain.

It is unlikely that these alternate arrangements can supplant the Pakistan route entirely but the very fact that these arrangements are being made suggests that coalition forces are moving towards a point where they can conduct their operations in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s assistance. A corollary of this reduced dependence on Pakistan could well be less sensitivity to Pakistan’s concerns while waging the anti-terror campaign.

We can all agree that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is largely owed to the failings of the Afghan administration and the ill-planned coalition operations which, while paying lip service to a “hearts and minds” campaign, remain largely focused on a military solution and continue to alienate people not only in the Pashtun belt but now increasingly all over the country.

Karzai’s failings are legion. The shortcomings of the international aid effort are clearly visible. The coalition military force deployed is grossly insufficient. The conference in Paris later this month will provide more money for Afghan development but will fall far short of the $50 billion Afghanistan is asking for and will certainly not agree on measures needed to use this aid effectively.

All these ills rather than cross-border infiltration are responsible for the current mess in Afghanistan. But for many Americans and their allies, the reason why the war in Afghanistan will continue for another ten years is that there are sanctuaries and supply replenishments across the border.

What will the Americans do in such circumstances? Is past history a guide? The North Vietnamese had established the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia to keep supplies of men and material flowing to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam where an inept government and a corrupt military could not, even with almost half a million American soldiers, effectively counter the insurgency.

If I recall correctly, Operation Commando Hunt was then initiated by the US in 1968 to interdict this route and some three million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos. The trail continued to operate and eventually the war was lost. The Laotians and the Cambodians are still recovering however from the physical and social devastation caused some 40 years ago. A farfetched analogy perhaps but one that we should not entirely lose sight of.

These apprehensions apart, we need to be more direct about what sort of agreement we want to get in the tribal areas not for the sake of Afghanistan or the coalition forces in Afghanistan or even Pak-US relations but for our own sake.

There is something to be said for trying to buy “space” but we must ensure that we do not in the process concede so much that it provides “space” not for ourselves but for the extremists. The “Red Lines” must be clear and one of them must be not allowing the use of our territory for cross border activity.

In the meanwhile governance too must be restored and for this both the federal and provincial governments must provide whatever manpower and financial resources are needed.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Source: Daily Times, 9/6/2008

 Posted by at 8:28 am

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