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What Obama's Af-Pak Strategy-II Portends

When US President Barack Obama, in his address to the nation, unveiled his new Af-Pak strategy at the West Point Military Academy on December 02, did he really believe that he had laid the road map of victory and withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan? Very unlikely. This is another interim strategy to see how far it can go, and use the time to think up a strategy-III for Afghanistan.

Just hours before Mr. Obama’s speech, the US Commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, in a six-hour meeting with Pak Army Chief Gen. Asfaq Kayani at the Pak Army Headquarters, extracted a promise that the Pak armed forces will counter all Taliban which target US and NATO forces. This would mean the Pakistani Taliban a.k.a. Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), its many factions, and the Afghan Taliban of Mullah Omar. Gen. McCrystal would have held Gen. Kayani’s feet to the fire and a lolly-pop in his mouth to extract this assurance which, unless tested cannot be accepted as a solemn commitment.

Media reports on the Kayani-McCrystal meeting were rather scanty, and hence it cannot be said the question of Al Qaeda was raised or not, or if raised, its outcome. Another question is whether the Pak army has been given the unwritten licence by the USA to enter Afghanistan. The US and NATO forces are operating in Afghanistan and not in Pakistan. If Pakistani forces enter Afghanistan without clearance from the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai, it will open up another huge problem. This could, in fact, blow back on Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan agenda.

President Obama made it clear that the US would help Pakistan both in the military and development areas to equip the country as a whole to counter terrorism. He admitted that Pakistan’s co-operation was critical to winning the war against terror, saying that US success in Afghanistan depended on Pakistan’s “co-operation”. But he also added the “US cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorism whose location is known and whose intentions are clear”.

President Obama’s strategy-II has come at a time when Pakistan’s nascent civilian government, especially President Asif Ali Zardari and some close Cabinet colleagues have become weak. The US backed National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) promulgated by former President Parvez Musharraf, exonerated Mr. Zardari and more than a hundred other politicians of corruption charges. This was done as part of the various moves to give Mr. Musharraf a face saving exit, and bring in a civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The NRO is about to be tested in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and President Zardari’s position is becoming very delicate. It is said that he is now a puppet President and that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has the army’s support. Mr. Zardari was never trusted or accepted by the army. The situation in Pakistan still remains dominated by the army and the ISI, whether in the foreground or from behind the Parliament. Gen. Kayani has turned out to be far more astute than his predecessor Gen. and President Parvez Musharraf. At least, till now. For once, the USA has taken a more considered policy position on Pakistan. While it has promised to enable the military to counter terrorism including weapons and training, it has kept the $7.5 billion civilian and development aid separate to be supervised by US agencies. Washington wants to develop and strengthen democracy, which is not to the liking of the Pak army. What angered the army further is that they cannot dip into the development aid pie.

If the US wants to prop up a semblance of democracy, it will finally have to accept a civilian government of the army’s choice. For the time being Mr. Zardari may have to move aside to give full reigns of the government to Mr. Gilani, who seems to have come to some understanding with Gen. Kayani and General Headquarters (GHQ). President Zardari had to make a major concession recently when he handed over power, relating to military appointments and postings to Prime Minister Gilani. Traditionally, the Pak army and the PPP have never been on cordial terms.

The army now calls the shots, and in all important issues the entire American establishment will have to deal with the armed forces. It is back to the reality of Pakistan. An example of this is a recent warming attack on well known journalist of the Dawn newspaper, Kamran Safi, who is a bold critic of the Pakistan army and the ISI.

The US president wants Pakistan’s military and ISI to close the safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The US administration across the board is highly concerned about the “Quetta Shura”, or the Taliban top coteries led by Mullah Omar, shifting between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Quetta. Al Qaeda top leaders are reportedly protected by the Shura. Although the US has been demanding action against the Shura, Pakistan denies its existence.

Unlike in Musharraf years, Gen. Kayani’s army does not speak much. The government is the army’s puppet spokesman in both denials and accusations. Over the last year and a half, the US has given hard evidence about the ISI’s co-operation with the Taliban, sharing with them actionable intelligence provided by the Americans. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly stated her disbelief that none in Pakistan’s defence and security establishment had any knowledge of the “Quetta Shura”. Even President Obama has made this clear, but action on Pakistan’s part has not been forthcoming.

The Pak armed forces finally took action against the Mehsud led TTP who are creating terror havoc in Pakistan, but still hope the other Taliban led by militant leaders like Mullah Nazir who support the Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, would be of assistance. While eliminating one devil, the Pak army is giving growing space to another devil which operates in Afghanistan with the Al Qaeda and Taliban. If anything, this is a strategy to control Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the US has acquired a strong military platform in Pakistan. In the aftermath of “9/11” and US president George W. Bush’s option offer to Pakistan “either with us or against us”, President Musharraf handed over two airports, Jacobabad and Pasni to the US military along with control of three-fourths of Pakistani air space.

The US is expanding its drone attacks from and in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But this is not the 1940s or 1950s. There will have to be limitations unless the Pak army cooperates fully, and there is little sign of that. Like some other countries, the US worked for almost two decades on a very restricted window on terrorism. In a very short sighted policy, which thankfully did not work, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sold an idea to the government in the later 1990s, to recognize a Taliban government in Afghanistan if the Taliban surrendered Osama bin Laden. Mullah Omar refused. That ended the negotiations.

The US was looking at oil and gas transmission through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the sea board. In an obtuse manner, this region should be thankful that Mullah Omar did not co-operate. It would have placed a US friendly Taliban government in Kabul, and the consequences for the neighbouring region from Central Asia to South Asia through Pakistan can be only imagined. Pursuit of hydrocarbon energy under the Bush administration reduced Iraq to what it is today. Saddam Hossain was an excuse, oil and gas were the objectives.

It is hoped President Obama and his advisors have learnt this lesson from the immediate past, and the cost of what they are picking up from Iraq today, in addition to opening space for the Al Qaeda in Iraq. In his letter to President Zardari in early November, leaked to the Washington Post (November 30), President Obama included the Laskar-e-Toiba (LET) as one of the five terrorist organizations that Pakistan must act against. Now the US has declared that the LET is fully associated with the Al Qaeda. It is very well known that the LET was created by the Pak army and the ISI for subversion in Kashmir, and then extended to other parts of India with a healthy base in Bangladesh laid out by the erstwhile BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) government. It was directly involved in last year’s Mumbai terrorist carnage known as “26/11”. The US has discovered, to its consternation, that the LET has extended its tentacles inside the USA. Realization late is better than never.

There is dismay, even chagrin, in India that Mr. Obama did not mention India in his Af-Pak strategy-II. India certainly has a legitimate point, given the fact India has been one of the biggest victims of Pakistan sponsored terrorism. Perhaps, President Obama and his team felt that India being the sworn enemy of the Pak military intelligence was better avoided in this delicate persuasion on Pakistan. In his assessment report on Afghanistan, Gen. McCrystal, while speaking positively about India’s developmental role in Afghanistan, also said this may make Pakistan embark on more negative actions in Afghanistan.

While understandable in one sense, it is open to question if a strategy could win by conceding to the spoiler. The Indians are not amused. While Pakistan is a contiguous neighbour of Afghanistan, its relations with Pakistan has been anything but cordial since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. On the other hand India has a historical relationship of goodwill with Afghanistan and extended to Central Asia and Russia.

The US will now have an impressive 100 thousand forces in Afghanistan. But President Obama’s time line of starting withdrawal from July 2011, though not a rigid position, had only raised excitement among the Pak army and the Afghan Taliban. Both sense a wariness in strategy-II. They perceive that the time is coming for a US withdrawal, like in Vietnam where, despite the US arming and training the South Vietnamese army, they withdrew to hand over the country to the Communists. But communism is not comparable to Talibanism, and the Taliban’s middle ages Islamic philosophy cannot compare with communism’s transition.

Creating a professional army from a rag tag force and inviting volunteers in a short time of another 18 months is not a feasible task. The number of Afghan army personnel to be trained has also been reduced. This is hardly a winning policy. The US just cannot walk away from Afghanistan, as it also has other regional interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But it appears President Obama may not have arrived at any definitive US policy. For example, during his visit to China in November, the Beijing leaders blocked his interview with the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly from being published. His address to the Shanghai University students, mostly Communist Party members was not broadcast outside Shanghai. Diplomatically, it is a pointed insult to a visiting head of state. In this case it was the head of the only super power. Yet, Mr. Obama invited China to participate in the Afghan peace process since China has substantial equity in Afghanistan. He should have studied carefully the highly questionable policy on international terrorism, followed by China, which is quite agreeable to see some neighbouring countries continue to suffer from Pakistan-based terrorism. Therefore, it is not unnatural for the countries of this South Asian – Central Asian regions to be apprehensive about the trajectory of President Obama’s Af-Pak Strategy-II.

The Pak army intelligence establishment is confident that the US is dependent on them. They also perceive that US withdrawal from AF-Pak is within smelling distance. Whether correct or not, this has given a fillip to the Pakistan army and the Afghan Taliban a new confidence. Otherwise, Mullah Omar’s Taliban would not have sent out a message offering legal guarantee not to intervene in other countries if the foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan. The message made no mention of Al Qaeda. Of course, the message has been taken with scepticism in the west, especially because the Taliban did not mention how they will deal with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda. Realistically, if the US starts withdrawing from Afghanistan and Pakistan post July 2011, the Pak army – Taliban will overwhelm Afghanistan. This will definitely go beyond Afghanistan to the Central Asian states, and India will also be a target.

In such a scenario, neither the Central Asian states along with Russia will sit quietly, and India will be forced to take more assertive defensive action to protect itself. The turmoil will be beyond imagination.

The Pak army – intelligence establishment’s strategy is one of a megalomaniac dictatorship. Today, the northern and eastern parts of Pakistan are under terrorist siege. The sprawling port city of Karachi is a powder keg with a variety of terrorist leaders in comfortable refuge. If Karachi explodes, and it will under certain conditions, Pakistan will become a terror black hole.

It will be advisable for US President Barack Obama and his strategic advisory team to relook at their Pak-Afghan strategy in the realm and thinking of the people of the region, and not in the matrix of western thinking. The two are very different. President Barack Obama sees the training of the Afghan national army as the centre piece of stabilizing Afghanistan and withdrawal of the US and NATO forces. In fact, however, the Pak army and intelligence establishment with their jehadi spawns stand between a peaceful developing region and a political and social Armageddon.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New

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