US spills Afghan war into Pakistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
From all accounts, the new Afghan war strategy of the Barack Obama
administration is getting its final touches. The United States Chief of Staff,
Admiral Mike Mullen, said, "We're just about done." From available indications,
the key American objective is two-fold: optimally getting Pakistani help in the
fight against terrorism and, secondly, reducing American expectations for
However, contradictions are surfacing already. To be sure, the role of Pakistan
becomes critical in the period ahead and the political uncertainty in Islamabad
complicates matters. The robust American attempts in the recent days at
persuading the obdurate protagonists in Pakistani politics to conciliate must
be seen in this perspective. But opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's tumultuous
assertion of his worthy place in the top echelons of national politics brings
an altogether new alchemy into US-Pakistan equations. Suffice to say that
uncharted territory lies ahead.
Therefore, the latest reports emanating from Washington regarding the
possibility of the US administration contemplating moving military operations
in the tribal areas of Pakistan to its province of Balochistan will certainly
inflame Pakistani opinion. The reports also speculated that the US might resort
to ground operations in addition to the Predator drone attacks on the tribal
areas. Sharif is highly unlikely to endorse any such escalation of the war by
the US and he is riding a high wave of popular support. Nor is the faction of
the Pakistani civilian government headed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani -
that is, even assuming that President Asif Ali Zardari might opt to remain a
Without doubt, the Pakistani security establishment will have no truck with any
such US policy that assumes the prerogative to violate Pakistan's territorial
integrity. Needless to say, Pakistani public opinion, including the comprador
class within its elite, will militate against any such US move. The reservoir
of "anti-Americanism" is already overflowing in Pakistan.
In sum, any expansion of the Afghan war into Pakistani territory will virtually
derail whatever track the US administration might be contemplating on opening a
political dialogue. Indeed, it seems more and more the case that the President
Barack Obama administration lacks any clear-headed strategy in the war. This is
also the growing regional perception, though only the Iranians may have openly
articulated such a perspective at governmental level.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has taken the initiative for an
international conference on Afghanistan, which is scheduled to take place at
The Hague on March 31. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend
the conference, which is in the run-up to the summit meeting of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to be held on April 3-4. In other words, a
timeline lies ahead for formally launching the US's new war strategy in
This was drawn up by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and apparently sets out 15
"goals", which include eradicating the safe havens of terrorists in Pakistan's
tribal areas, bolstering the capacity of the Kabul government to ward off the
Taliban challenge to its survival through a substantial build-up of Afghan
armed forces, ensuring better governance by the Kabul government and ensuring
that Afghanistan remained stable. It is a basket of tough "goals" to be sought
within a three- to five-year timeframe. Evidently, the US has trimmed the
grandiose objectives with regard to transforming Afghanistan into a
The premise behind the new strategy is that the military alone cannot win the
war. In a stunning public admission, Obama has publicly noted that the US is
not winning the war, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom he met
recently, has gone a step further to doubt whether the war could ever be won.
It increasingly seems that all that can be successfully sought is curbing the
insurgency. Thus, as a recent BBC commentary put it, the reach of the military
component in the new war strategy will essentially be to buy time, even as
"less tangible counter-insurgency tactics" take hold.
Principal among such tactics will be the tricky question of engaging the
Taliban. Obama has taken a bold leap by underscoring the need to differentiate
the "moderate" Taliban and to engage them rather than branding the entire
Afghan opposition as "Islamic fundamentalists". This is a refreshing rethink.
Political Islam is a many-splendored thing. Islamists of diverse hues fill up a
colorful political theater today in the Greater Middle East stretching from the
Levant to the steppes of Central Asia. They range from Salafis who rule Turkey
to the Muslim Brotherhood and its various affiliates, to the Iranian regime,
and to the violent fringe groups inspired by Osama bin Laden.
The idea of opening the door to approaching the Taliban is not new. Through the
second half of the 1990s right up to October 2001, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
had preferred the option that through a carrot-and-stick policy, the US could
have persuaded the Taliban to hand over al-Qaeda's leadership, including Bin
Indeed, within the US there is today a chorus of opinion that elements of the
Taliban might be amenable to reconciliation. The Europeans, especially the
British, have been advocating a similar line for some time. Russia and China,
too, are open to the idea. Iran prevaricates. Thus, Obama has essentially
echoed an idea whose time may have come.
But then, "Taliban" is a very complex phenomenon. Its Islamism is rooted in
traditional Islam and "anti-modernist" ideology and it subscribes to an
innovative form of sharia that mixes Pashtun tribal codes, or Pashtunwali, with
radical Deobandi interpretations of Islam. The admixture further includes
traces of Wahhabism introduced by the Taliban's Saudi financiers and
pan-Islamism of contemporaneous "jihadi" movements. The Taliban ideology is
radically different from the Islamism of the Afghan mujahideen who drew
inspiration from mystical Sufism native to Afghanistan and the Muslim
Brotherhood or Ikhwan.
Thus, while a division between the "moderate" and "extremist" Taliban may well
exist, the issue is whether distinguishing it is going to be practical. The
point is, as Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban minister and Guantanamo
Bay internee pointed out, "If the Americans are thinking ... that they want to
distinguish between the hardline and moderate Taliban, it will not be
acceptable to anybody, because it is like telling two brothers that you love
one and want to play with him, while you want to kill the other one."
Besides, the "Taliban" comprises, apart from hardcore neo-Taliban as such, an
assortment of elements drawn from Pashtun tribes, sub-tribes and clans who may
or may not be allied to the Taliban, plus local mafia, criminal gangs, plain
warlords and even erstwhile mujahideen. And some of them outside of the pale of
neo-Taliban can be very important interlocutors.
For example, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party of Afghanistan. His party
still remains an important political force. As a Moscow commentator put it,
Hekmatyar's position differs considerably from that of the Taliban. "While
[Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar insists on complete withdrawal of the
international peacekeeping forces from Afghanistan, Hekmatyar urges their
replacement with troops from Muslim countries. This idea is popular among some
strata of the public and should be taken into consideration."
Then, there are other aspects.
One, talking to the Taliban - even if they be "moderate" Taliban - will be
perceived by the Afghan public as a search for compromise with the neo-Taliban.
It conveys a mixed signal in a war where "winning the hearts" of the people is
half the war. On the one hand, the US is sending more troops, arming local
tribes and is training an Afghan army to fight the Taliban, while on the other
hand, the Americans are talking peace.
Two, the Taliban are sensing that they are not losing the war, which is
tantamount to winning the war. Why should they negotiate? What is it that can
be offered that they find difficult to reject?
Three, even if theoretically it may be possible to peel off "moderate" Taliban,
there is no certainty that they are sufficiently strong as collaborators for
the stabilization of Afghanistan. In fact, the high probability is that
hardliners will continue to destabilize the country.
Four, the hardliners are much closer to al-Qaeda than ever before. To borrow
the words of Peter Bergen of the US think-tank New America Foundation, "The
upper levels of the Taliban have morphed together ideologically and tactically
Without doubt, the Taliban's rhetoric increasingly resounds with references to
Iraq and Palestine. Finally, the Taliban leadership is largely in Pakistan.
Negotiations become meaningful only if the Taliban shura is engaged. But
the elusive shura is unlikely to be impressed, as the US is negotiating
from a position of weakness or stalemate.
Thus is born the idea that there ought to be a "smart policy" whereby in the
first instance the US will be escalating bombing raids in Pakistan's tribal
areas and inflict a lot of pain on the Taliban. The US special representative,
Richard Holbrooke, who pilots this "smart" policy, has appointed Barnett Rubin,
Afghan policy expert, to coordinate the approach to the Taliban.
It seems the process of talking to the Taliban will be an ugly thing to watch.
Rubin wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article that in a "grand bargain", the
US would end the military action when and if the badly mauled Taliban saw
reason and agreed to "prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for
international terrorism" and that the resultant agreement would "constitute a
strategic defeat for al-Qaeda".
Such a heavy US footprint, as Holbrooke envisages, can only play into the hands
of the Taliban, as it is sure to inflame ethnic Pashtun nationalism. If the
objective is to ensure greater participation by ethnic Pashtuns in the
government, it could be gone about differently by facilitating an open,
nationwide intra-Afghan dialogue.
The US should resort to the tried-and-tested method of achieving national
accord, which means convening a loya jirga, or grand council. There is
no real alternative when the country's political elite is hopelessly disunited
and there is hardly any consolidating force in the society or any leading
The Kabul government of President Hamid Karzai is meandering, cut adrift by the
Obama administration, and neither its mujahideen opposition nor the Taliban can
replace it. This is a deep systemic crisis. Talking with the moderate Taliban
is necessary, but it no longer suffices, as it would have done in 2002 or 2003.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.