The success of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan will depend heavily on Pakistan acting to stop its territory being used to attack Western forces next door.
And that’s bad news, because the demands of its own domestic counterinsurgency campaign, doubts about the duration of U.S. commitment in Afghanistan and looming political instability in Islamabad have left Pakistan in no hurry to help out.
Obama’s National Security Adviser General James Jones in November 2009 visited Islamabad carrying a message from his boss to Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari.
Obama in the letter urged Zardari to rally his nation behind a joint campaign against militants who fight the Pakistani government and those who fight U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. Obama was also reported to have demanded more decisive action against al-Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In return, he reportedly offered a range of fresh incentives, “including enhanced intelligence sharing and military cooperation.”
The problem, of course, is that Obama’s letter may have gone to the wrong address. As a weak and unpopular President scarcely seen in public and now the object of growing vilification at home, Zardari is in no position to lead a popular movement against militancy, much less to redirect his army’s focus.
As ever, it is the all-powerful military establishment that will make the key decisions in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military has certainly moved decisively against those militants that pose a direct challenge to its authority on home soil.
Buoyed by its successes in last May’s campaign to drive the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, it has for the past month deployed some 30,000 troops to confront the militants in their main stronghold of South Waziristan, along the Afghan border. The army has steadily cleared territory eastward, seizing some of the Pakistani Taliban’s most prized bases, but also sparking a vicious wave of terrorist attacks that continues to claim innocent lives on a near daily basis.
The South Waziristan offensive, however, may be the limit of what the Pakistani military is willing to take on right now. It’s priority after clearing the area of Taliban elements will be to hold it — and there are signs that the militants have merely scattered to areas beyond the scope of the current offensive, waiting to stage a return. “We have not been defeated,” Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq told reporters at a secret location on Nov 18, dismissing the army’s claims. “We have voluntarily withdrawn into the mountains under a strategy that will trap the Pakistan army in the area.”
With a long fight ahead of it, the Pakistan army won’t welcome demands that it expand its range of operations. They will view this letter with some displeasure. Pakistan army is not going to go to North Waziristan before it completes its operation in South Waziristan.
Two of the militant groups that Washington would like to see Islamabad target are based in North Waziristan: the Haqqani network and the one led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, both of whom mount cross-border attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.
I don’t think that the Pakistan army will target Haqqani. The reason being that they don’t want to open a front with every militant group. The army has long insisted that it does not have the resources to counter the full range of militants based in the tribal areas. Already, military officials argue, heavy numbers are committed all along the tribal areas and in the Swat Valley. It is also forced to commit forces to guard against upsurges of militancy in other parts of Pakistan.
And, of course, the army’s priority remains guarding the eastern border with India. Indeed, the fact that India continues to be viewed as the principal security challenge by the Pakistani military establishment also dictates a policy toward Afghanistan that does little to help the U.S. there.
Pakistan’s generals are concerned by what they perceive as growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, through the Karzai government and massive development projects. They also accuse India of using Afghanistan as a base from which to wage a proxy war on Pakistan. Its priorities make the Pakistan army unlikely to turn its fire on the Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur networks, as Obama is demanding.
Instead, the army has revived a nonaggression pact with Bahadur and with Maulvi Nazir — both of which use Pakistani soil as a base from which to wage war on NATO forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s priority is simply to get them to agree to stay neutral or join in the fight between the army and the Pakistan Taliban. Nazir, who was freed from Pakistani custody to fight al-Qaeda-linked Uzbek militants, controls the areas of South Waziristan where the Pakistan army has positioned troops to seal off a line of retreat for the Pakistan Taliban. The danger for the U.S. is that such deals involve a nod and a wink for continued cross-border attacks, making the militants an even more potent threat.
The Haqqani network is believed to have long-standing links with the ISI, while senior Western diplomats allege that Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban continues to operate out of Quetta.
Many suspect that the reason that the Afghan Taliban manages to operate unmolested on Pakistani soil is Pakistan’s need to maintain leverage in Afghanistan, where the U.S. presence is viewed as temporary. Indeed, some Pakistani observers suggest that even if a U.S. surge is successful, it will at best lead to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, in which Pakistan would play broker.
You need an increased U.S. troop strength to countervail the Taliban in the south and the east, so that you can bring them to the negotiating table. The Pakistani military also thinks that if they succeed in Afghanistan, the Taliban will be less powerful in Pakistan. The Americans should see Pakistan as an interlocutor for trying to handle these groups politically.
The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan is unlikely to work unless the Taliban and their allies are denied the sanctuary they enjoy across the border in Pakistan. That’s why two top U.S. military commanders, General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Islamabad in Dec 2009 to press their Pakistani counterparts for action on Afghan Taliban networks based in Pakistani North Waziristan and around the city of Quetta. But even as the Pakistani military fights a full-scale counterinsurgency war against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban), it remains reluctant to extend its targets to include the groups that most concern the U.S.
The argument most often used by Pakistani officials to rebuff Washington’s demands for action against the Afghan Taliban–allied Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, as well as the Afghan Taliban leadership core in Quetta, is about resources and priorities.
Pakistan has committed 30,000 troops to its offensive against the TTP in Swat and South Waziristan, and officials say they simply don’t have the resources to open a second front against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan (which is also where al-Qaeda’s leaders are believed to be hiding). General Ashfaq Kayani reportedly told Petraeus that Pakistan’s priority, given its limited resources, was the TTP insurgency, which directly challenges the Pakistani state.
If Pakistan is overstretched, then even the current operation against the Afghan Taliban will be directly affected. Pakistani officials advancing this argument often imply that once the domestic insurgency has been suppressed, the army can move on to tackling the groups that most concern the U.S. But many analysts believe that Pakistan’s reluctance to go after Haqqani, Hekmatyar and the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta is based not only on resources and priorities, but also on the Pakistani military’s assessment of its long-term interests in Afghanistan after the US leaves.
The fearsome North Waziristan–based network, led by ailing former Afghan mujahedin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and run by his son Sirajuddin, controls three key Afghan provinces that border Pakistan — Khost, Paktia and Paktika. The network has a long-standing relationship with the ISI and is viewed by many in the Pakistani military as an important strategic asset in the regional struggle for influence in Afghanistan. (Some reports suggest that this has become a matter of debate within the Pakistani military.) Those who share this view believe that the group can be separated from al-Qaeda and could form part of a compromise political solution in Afghanistan, which Pakistan hopes to play a key role in brokering. A similar logic is probably at work with respect to Hekmatyar and even the Afghan Taliban leadership. It’s a view based on seeing the Afghan Taliban as a Pashtun nationalist movement challenging the new Tajik-dominated political order in Kabul — which is deemed by many in Pakistan to be a proxy for India. There’s also concern that mounting an offensive against Taliban groups that confine their attacks to Afghanistan will rouse Pashtun fury on both sides of the border, imperiling Pakistan’s domestic counterinsurgency effort.
To eliminate al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, it must be separated and isolated from the Taliban ‘sea’ in which it is currently hiding. But the U.S. troop surge will be mainly directed against the Taliban insurgency. It will push al-Qaeda and the insurgents closer together, making it more difficult to isolate and target al-Qaeda. Pakistan’s going after the Afghan Taliban, which is seen as America’s enemy, would weaken Pakistan’s national consensus supporting the offensive against the TTP, many Pakistanis like Munir Akram believe.
The immediate focus of discussion between the U.S. and Pakistan is North Waziristan. While the Pakistan army has cleared swaths of territory once controlled by the TTP in South Waziristan and claims to have killed more than 600 militants, it has not managed to kill or capture any of the leadership, who have largely fled north, along with many fighters. That certainly gives Pakistan’s army a pretext for pushing into North Waziristan — as the U.S. is urging — although any such operation would probably be a limited one, focused on TTP groups and concentrated in areas where they would avoid clashing with Haqqani fighters.
If the Pakistani military declines to go after the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. faces limited options for turning up the heat. Unable, politically, to commit ground forces to Pakistani territory, it would be forced to rely on the remote-controlled drone strikes that have been effective in killing al-Qaeda leaders in the area. Conflicting reports in the U.S. media suggest that President Obama either plans to expand those operations precisely to target the Afghan insurgent groupings that remain largely unmolested in Pakistan or is reluctant to authorize strikes that go beyond the targets agreed by Pakistan, for fear of jeopardizing cooperation and triggering a political crisis. But if the goal is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, the U.S. may feel it has no choice. And that’s certainly the message it wants Pakistan — and the Taliban — to take from the current conversation.
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