Thursday, December 16, 2010

What will determine the new AfPak strategy, Pakistanophobia or sanity?

As the final date of the start of withdrawal of NATO’s troops from Afghanistan draws closer, Pakistanophobia in some of the circles of American establishment starts to grow. This is no ordinary time. It is when the US president is to review his AfPak strategy and announce policy options. These Pakistanophobes have their own calculations and their own explanation for their failure in Afghanistan.  They think that America can't win in Afghanistan as long as assorted Taliban insurgents find safe haven in Pakistan. That's the no-brainer dressed up as revelation in leaks this week about the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate regarding both countries. This is as if Pakistan does not have to ensure safeguarding its own national interests. Unlike the US, it is a critical moment for Pakistan involving the question of its survival and it cannot afford to make any stupid move just because someone somewhere wants his/her own stupid plans to materialize, come what may, that is for Pakistan.

And this has been acknowledged by some saner elements in the American establishment. American newspapers of repute have simultaneously published elaborate reports on this issue. Wall Street Journal, in its latest edition writes about the assumption that Pakistan can bring the extremists to heel at its pleasure. And the logic is that after all, the Pakistani military began nurturing Afghan and other jihadists in the 1980s and has kept them on as "strategic assets" throughout the American long war brought about by 9/11. The paper very conveniently ignores that fact that these jihadist elements may have been nurtured by Pakistan but were armed, equipped and funded by the US as they were, in some ways, fighting USSR to the interests of the US itself. If they were strategic assets for any one, they were useful both for the USA and Pakistan. And mind you, the present day Taliban and the Mujahideen of those days are not the same people. The paper goes on to say that American bribes, threats and pleas have prompted Pakistan into its own troop surge in the tribal regions. Over the past 18 months the Pakistanis have more than quadrupled their presence there, to 140,000, and have taken heavy casualties. Last year the Pakistani army cleared Swat Valley and South Waziristan, which had been overrun by militants.

In spite of all this, the major complaint is that Pakistan hasn't turned. The year ends sourly for U.S.-Pakistani military relations. American frustration with Pakistan's army has grown over broken Pakistani promises and a perceived lack of urgency. Summer floods diverted Pakistani troops away from the tribal areas, but the military doesn't have that excuse now. The Pakistanis have also denied American requests to expand drone coverage to the area around Quetta, the city in Baluchistan that is the headquarters-in-exile of the Taliban.

The demand is very clear; don’t go after the Taliban who attack Pakistani forces and interests with the help of India and may be USA, go after the Taliban who attack Americans. How cute and innocent….Well Pakistan must go after all these elements but it is already fighting an over-stretched war. War with Taliban in South Waziristan and Swat and other areas is indeed a proxy war with India. It is, in effect, a two-front war and at this moment, it would be suicidal for Pakistan to venture into North Waziristan. It does not mean that fighting Afghan Taliban is not important for Pakistan, it is simply a little too early when Pakistan forces are not ready before they clear the south Waziristan area.

Washington Post report quotes a military official saying he worries that the Washington debate about Pakistan is becoming "hyper-focused" on a demand that the Pakistani army attack North Waziristan to stop Taliban insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan - a request he says the Pakistanis are incapable of meeting because their forces are "stretched too thin." The paper says that the harder Washington pushes for a crackdown, the more Islamabad seems to resist. And the explanation is simple. The two countries' interests differ on this one: America, with its forces exposed in Afghanistan, wants action now. Pakistan, facing a nationwide campaign of terrorism, wants to concentrate on its internal threat. Politicians in each country accuse the other nation of being duplicitous and untrustworthy, which only makes the situation worse.

A New York Times report says that a new pair of national intelligence estimates take a bleaker view, arguing that the war has "a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border." Despite the growing Pakistanophobia in Washington, senior U.S. officials say the Pakistanis are moving in the right direction, though maddeningly slowly. One notes that the Pakistanis, despite their perennial jitters about India, now have 140,000 troops in the northwest border area, more than the United States has in Afghanistan. "They are extended at this point as far as they can be," he says.

Washington Post quotes the American official saying that Washington should realize that the Pakistanis "are unable to conduct significant new operations without additional troops. That's not a criticism, it's a reality." This official notes that the Pakistani military has lost 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers fighting the extremists, with three to four times that many wounded. Civilian casualties are in the tens of thousands. If America experienced this level of casualties, he says, "we would probably call it a second American Civil War."

New York Times reports that Admiral Mullen’s during his trip this week has been talking about the need for “strategic patience.” But until Pakistan’s army moves against the Afghan Taliban — and Pakistan’s intelligence service cuts all ties with the extremists — the prospects for President Obama’s war strategy are, frankly, dim. But the list of things still going wrong is depressingly long, starting with the incompetence and corruption of the government of President Hamid Karzai. And as The Times reported on Wednesday, two new classified intelligence reports are particularly downbeat about the ease with which Pakistani-based militants cross into Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan’s refusal to shut down the sanctuaries used by the militants for rest and resupply.

While some American military commanders disputed the reports’ overall pessimism, there have been disturbing signs on our visit this week that the Pentagon is increasingly resigned to Pakistan’s inaction. A defense official argued that Pakistan’s army is so overstretched — from flood relief and 19 months of sustained combat that has caused thousands of Pakistani casualties — that it cannot possibly undertake any more operations. That may be true, but it would not take a major offensive for Pakistan to weaken the insurgents. The country’s intelligence service, the ISI, could start by withdrawing all support and protection from the militants. Even as Pakistan’s army vows to take on militants spreading chaos and mayhem inside Pakistan, the intelligence service still sees the Afghan Taliban as a way to ensure influence on the other side of the border and keep India’s influence at bay. It is a dangerous game, based on a flawed premise. American officials say the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other groups increasingly act like a syndicate, sharing know-how and colluding when needed. General Kayani, whose previous job was heading the ISI, should certainly know that.

The Obama administration has said and done many of the right things to build a long-term relationship with Pakistan, including cultivating top military leaders and providing long-term development aid. And not all of the news is grim. Last week, Pakistan and American forces jointly launched a successful cross-border operation. The number of American cross-border drone attacks into Pakistan have also increased significantly, while Islamabad’s protests have been comparatively muted. For a relationship this complicated, strategic patience may well be necessary. The problem is that the Taliban pose a threat, right now, to the survival of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Obama and his advisers — military and civilian — clearly have to do more to change the thinking in Islamabad.


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