Messrs Holbrooke and Mullen’s visit last week has left the AfPak scene even more confused. More specifically, Pakistanis have clearly betrayed unease on how the entire spectrum of security and geo-politics is aimed to play out according to the revised American strategy for the region. Pakistan exhibited irritation and impatience on how the American envoys placed their case.
A few things could be easily discerned: the US wanted Pakistan to do more, in fact, double the effort against the Taliban if they wanted the $1.5 billion a year compensatory hand-out; they wished to initiate direct engagement from the air of some suspected Taliban locations and hide-outs in Balochistan through the dreaded drone attacks. Mullah Omar is known to set camp there in some remote recess, with resultantly successful operational dividends in South and South-East Afghanistan.
Pakistan, on the other hand, detailed a few red lines: the drone attacks must stop — these are counter-productive. What perhaps may have gone unsaid is that these are also hugely embarrassing for the government at the political level. Instead, Pakistan proposed to take on the entire operational responsibility against the militant elements if the US was willing to share direct intelligence inputs with Pakistan, provide Predator and Reaper drones to Pakistan to own and operate, and let Pakistan make the necessary decisions on the suitability of targets and their benefit to the overall objectives.
Apparently, this is where lay the rub. The Americans indicated a lack of faith and trust in the Pakistani intelligence apparatus with an over-riding fear of the information being compromised to the intended targets — a huge deficit when trust, confidence and mutual assurance should underlie such operational cooperation. That it translates to widely differing perceptions on strategic objectives for each of them further complicates the issue.
The US wants elimination of the Al Qaeda duo, Zawahiri and bin Laden, and neutralisation of the Afghan Taliban through both direct attack and inducement to obviate any chances for the Al Qaeda sentiment to ever find a physical presence or base of operations in Afghanistan under any revised Taliban disposition.
That it zeroes in on Sirajuddin Haqqani, a major Afghan Taliban leader purported to find favour with the Pakistani agencies, while supporting either through direct involvement or in cohort with the Indian agencies the likes of Baitullah Mehsud and his group currently at war with Pakistan, highlights the two opposing ends of the spectrum that both Pakistan and the US occupy.
To obviate the more insistent demand by Pakistan to share intelligence on intended targets in the tribal region, the Americans in turn proposed joint operations by both Pakistani and American forces in the area. Unable to handle the sovereignty issues within the country on drone incursions alone, the Pakistanis balked at even the suggestion of such an eventuality; it’s adverse political fallout being entirely unacceptable and the resultant damage irreparable in the electoral context.
Such is the complexity of any effort to resolve the issues at hand. This also needs to be viewed in the light of the larger geo-political interests at play in the region.
President Obama has already curtailed the open-ended mission of the Bush regime in Afghanistan. With growing voices in America seeking the common sense of fighting an aimless war halfway round the world, Obama’s strategy underlines doables and deliverables in a quick time frame.
The US has three major aims to achieve in Afghanistan.
One, regain control of the South and South-East and deny the Taliban a base from which to expand. Their recent 21,000-strong troop surge is aimed at doing exactly that, and while achieving so will derive the benefit of laying open the Iranian East and North-East to projection of clear American capacity to apply strategic pressure on Iran.
Two, to enable the second in the series presidential elections in August 2009, and more likely bring in an alternate to Hamid Karzai — he having been sufficiently defamed on corruption charges. The second cycle of elections will indicate some semblance of stability and institutionalisation of the political process.
And three, develop, train and equip Afghan security and law enforcement forces under a given time frame to hand over responsibility of the revamped Afghan state to these institutions and make a timely exit in about 2-3 years, appearing prim and proper on the morality scale for the 2012 re-election bid.
One thing is certain: Obama doesn’t like being boxed in anywhere, and certainly not in Afghanistan. He will not let Afghanistan be another Vietnam — certainly not under another Democratic government. When he talks of an exit strategy, and wants it included in the final document, that invariably results in an events table against a firm time-line. There is thus likely to be a series of clear discernable actions within the larger AfPak region, and an exit point in the end. It may only be a matter of making an environment appear stable; proclamation of sustainable and enduring structures, with one event — any event of even limited significance — claimed as a symbolic victory, and adieus.
India on the other hand will continue to thrive in furthering its own objectives in Afghanistan by keeping Pakistan on the back-foot under an incessant attack on the trumped up charges of infidelity of purpose of the Pakistani intelligence agencies through their own and the western media, suitably reinforced through diplomatic interaction as was witnessed during the Holbrooke-Mullen visit.
Their nexus with Western entities in Afghanistan is a godsend for them, where, after a rather barren period till 2002, they find an opportunity to leave and sustain a formidable footprint. That this enables them to extend their operations into Pakistan, particularly Balochistan, goes without saying; India’s ultimate objective being to weaken Pakistani state structures to a point where the shell might stay but the inside will be hollow, with zero capacity to be of any consequence in the remaining Afghanistan.
Pakistan has its work cut out. The game plan is pretty obvious. The combination of internal turmoil on the back of sponsored terrorism, suitably augmented by our homegrown genii, weak governance, an impoverished and now entirely dependent economy, and a fractious polity is recipe for paralysis of the state. The leadership is incapable of thinking of a clear way forward, or any way forward at all, under this unending cycle of geo-political and geo-economic offensives. The intensity and frequency is of the nature not to leave a moment of reflection for the leadership — that being the essence of disrupting decision cycles to the extent of choking them into paralysis and ultimate submission.
What is the way out?
Recognise the threat; understand it; get the best people together from all related departments; form task groups for each of these concerns — security, both external and internal; the economy — and how to make the wheels grind on own capacity; ensure a united nation with a leadership that is visible and heard, and is capable of leading the nation out of this morass; and then assiduously hold weekly meetings of all stakeholders to present their report cards as well as their plans for the future.
Take all this to its logical end. Get our capacity in place internally, so that we are in a position to handle the fallout of, once again, another uncertain Afghanistan after the Americans exit.
The biggest weakness and threat to the state will eventually emerge from within. As long as we can hold firm on the inside and provide strength to the shell, it shall sustain external stresses. Our regional interests — Kashmir, Afghanistan, etc. — can come later. The need is to get to work. Sadly, I do not see signs of it.
The writer is a retired air vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and a former ambassador. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reproduced by permission of DT