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Pakistan’s window of hope —Syed Talat Hussain

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syedtalatMuch of Pakistan’s soft clout in Afghanistan in the coming months would be shaped by its ability to tag along with the world’s nation-building efforts. If Islamabad baulks at becoming a strong and willing partner in these, others would fill the gap

The American road-ahead policy presents Pakistan with a unique all-round policy opportunity to shape the strategic environment in Afghanistan, close festering sources of terrorism in tribal areas, and most crucially, regain broad-based clout with Washington. In other words, the ambitious multiple agenda the US has set for itself in Afghanistan, and partly also in the borders areas of Pakistan, provides exceptional room for Pakistan to make strong purposeful manoeuvres to earn solid diplomatic gains.

Take Afghanistan’s internal challenges first. Even though the US has lowered the bar for its nation-building stride, still it is committed to a tall order. In just under two years, endemic corruption has to be rooted out, drug lords’ formidable empire has to be torn down, and the economy has to be built-up and made self-sufficient. This is not all. In this tight time-frame, administrative efficiency has to reach a level where all of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts must have, in the words of General James Jones, the national security advisor, “economic development, good governance, and security”. Also included in the dreamland of benchmarks are “good and competent governors” for all the 34 provinces of the country.

It would be a miracle if even a fraction of this wish list comes true, especially by a weak and politically emaciated president whose second term election President Obama believes was marred by fraud. But Pakistan should resist the temptation of being the Jeremiah, the prophet of doom. Nor prepare to dance with vicarious joy in the event that the situation in Afghanistan defies Washington’s hopefulness. Instead it should, and seriously, partner in these efforts regardless of whether these are doomed to failure or destined for success. It is obvious that to make the first review of the progress in Afghanistan — in the middle of next year perhaps — a worthwhile exercise, the Obama administration will pull every stop to bring about visible change in all these indicators. Therefore, Washington is likely to be far more receptive to productive suggestions on pursuing its development agenda from other countries than it has been so far. Pakistan can step in with plans that enhance Afghans’ capacity to move in the right direction — infrastructure, education, agriculture, irrigation, basic science, technology, water management or many of the dozens of areas where it has expertise to proffer. Much of Pakistan’s soft clout in Afghanistan in the coming months would be shaped by its ability to tag along with the world’s nation-building efforts. If Islamabad baulks at becoming a strong and willing partner in these, others would fill the gap.
Helping rebuild the Afghan National Security Force, the army and the Afghan National Police, is another area Pakistan ought to eye for gaining goodwill and diplomatic ground in Afghanistan. Many of Islamabad’s objections to the conduct of the Afghan National Army (ANA) deployed on the border with Pakistan are sound. The ANA has lived up to its reputation of being a force viscerally hostile to Pakistan. Elements from the erstwhile Northern Alliance dominate the ANA. Its members are mostly Darri and Persian speaking. They have been trained over the past many years to mistreat Pashtuns, which is part of the problem in Afghanistan.
While this history makes them structurally inimical to Pakistan, the fact remains that for the Obama administration to build a truly national army, the institution’s ethnic imbalance shall have to be rectified. Pashtuns, former Taliban, even the personal armies of warlords, have to be integrated into the national army to become viable and take over responsibility of stabilising Afghanistan and paving the way for the start of the pull out of US troops. It is not known yet how much Washington would be willing to allow the Pakistan army to team up in efforts to train the ANA. However, for an Afghan force to be functional and effective in the south and the east of Afghanistan, its ethnic composition has to be such that Pakistan’s contribution to its training must be welcomed in any serious effort in building it up along strong durable lines. At any rate, Pakistan must make a solid gesture on this project: ditto should be done on Afghan police reforms. Remember, Pakistan cannot afford to be left out of the efforts to create institutions that would play a critical role in defining Afghanistan’s trajectory in the coming months. Also, international confidence that an Afghan national security force has come of age will help endorse Pakistan’s long-standing argument that the prospects of durable peace are inversely related to foreign troop level in Afghanistan. They will have to leave for peace to be fully restored and the Afghan resistance to be neutralised politically. Then there is the issue of safe havens inside North Waziristan and the presence of the Quetta Shura in Balochistan. On the face of it, the room for agreement between Washington and Islamabad is the least on this benchmark. US officials believe removing these sanctuaries is the first and foremost task to bring about a strategic shift in violence in Afghanistan. Members of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment see the ‘safe havens’ refrain a stratagem Washington and its allies use to hide their long and spectacular military failure inside Afghanistan to stem the rising tide of the resistance. Beneath this mutual recrimination, however, lies the hard fact that Pakistan and the US have consistently cooperated with each other in combating cross-border movement of the Taliban. Their military operations, not always conceived in perfect harmony, have seen both parties alternately play the hammer and the anvil to smash and squeeze the militants moving across. In the last surge-related operation in Helmand, Pakistan ended up sealing a long stretch of the border with Afghanistan to disallow any spillover effect. A much deeper and wider cooperation will be required to manage far bigger and bloodier operations in the coming weeks.
It is in Pakistan’s core national interest to ensure that safe havens do not become Washington’s excuse for pinning the blame for poor performance in the battles with the Taliban on us. It also serves Pakistan’s paramount security concerns that the wild militant groups in the tribal belt are brought under the heel. The new and vicious wave of urban terrorism has rendered useless the distinction between North and South Waziristan militancy. Government officials themselves admit that much of this terrorism is now flowing out of Mir Ali. This is where Wali ur Rehman, Hakeemullah Mehsud and the other big fish are. Cleaning up this area is critical to making operation Rah-e-Nijat relevant to securing the people from the game of death the terrorists are playing. A hard hit at these safe havens will also take the US pressure off Pakistan and give Islamabad and Washington time to plan about the Quetta Shura.
Pakistani policy makers have a substantial window of opportunity to make wise choices — something they did not do when George W Bush and his neo-con cabal were sending forces into Afghanistan. Pervez Musharraf’s thoughtlessness landed the country in a heap of unintended problems. This nation cannot afford a repeat of a similar mistake now that Washington is seriously thinking about going home.

The writer is a leading Pakistani journalist

Article published in Daily Times, reproduced by permission of DT.\12\10\story_10-12-2009_pg3_2

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