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    South Asia
     Mar 24, 2009
Pakistan's peace deals offer US a pointer
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - Now eight years on, the United States-led occupation of Afghanistan and Washington's contentious relationship with Pakistan have both reached critical junctures.

Despite the President Barack Obama administration's much-hyped strategic review of the war against the Taliban and the escalating militancy in Pakistan, the US still does not have a clear picture of the Afghan war theater.

In tandem with the initiative to talk to "moderate" Taliban, the US is expected to experiment with a new policy in Afghanistan under 

 
which the focus will be to secure Kabul only. The capital's surrounding provinces are under Taliban influence.

Top American experts believe the results of any increase in troop numbers will be difficult to assess before the summer of 2010. In the event of failure, the US will have few options left, because sending another 30,000 troops would present a political challenge. The US already has 65,000 troops in the country following a recent injection of 17,000.

The US wants to focus these troops on areas where they can make a real difference, that is, around Kabul, and not in southwest Helmand province. This will allow the allies to build sustainable Afghan institutions and eventually withdraw their military forces.

On Sunday night, Obama told the CBS program 60 Minutes that "what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy" for Afghanistan. "There's got to be an exit strategy. There's got to be a sense that this is not a perpetual drift."

However, there is no timeframe for this, according to Mushahid Hussain Sayed, the chairman of the Pakistan Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, who spoke to Asia Times Online in Islamabad.

"No basic decision has been made so far. There is an ambiguity on the objectives in Afghanistan on the part of Western troops and in what time frame they will end this war," said Mushahid.

"If you go through their statements you will find that there is no mention of any plan for [al-Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden's capture, which was the prime reason for their presence in Afghanistan in the first place. Instead, the whole new plan is for the security of Kabul," Mushahid said.

Mushahid has for many years been close to Pakistan's military oligarchs and their thinking processes, having been taken onboard on major strategic decisions. He is also a visiting member at the National Defense University, Islamabad, Pakistan's most influential think-tank and which is run by the armed forces. Mushahid believes the Americans now face the most crucial phase of the insurgency in Afghanistan, yet there is no consensus on any single strategy.

"Five different studies in America will be concluded before the next NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] summit [this month]. These include the strategy of [US Central Command chief] General David Petraeus, [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman] Admiral Michael Mullen, [White House Afghan expert] Lieutenant General [Douglas E] Lute, [special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan] Richard Holbrooke and Bruce Riedel." (Riedel is a former Central Intelligence Agency Middle East expert tasked with overhauling US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

"Probably the best of these will be Michael Mullen's. He believes in cordial relations with Pakistan's security forces and sympathizes with the Pakistan armed forces, their efforts, sacrifices, and believes that armies can work together," said Mushahid.

"Mullen believes in direct relations between GHQ [Pakistan military headquarters in Rawalpindi] and the Pentagon. There is a lot of appreciation in the US for the role of the Frontier Corps in Bajaur [Agency in Pakistan]," Mushahid said, adding that while a segment of the American establishment trusts Pakistan and supports its role in the war theater, there are other complications which undermine the whole scheme.

"There is a serious lack of coordination, even among the countries whose forces are deployed in Afghanistan. There are 11 different intelligence outfits in Afghanistan, but they don't share intelligence with each other and this is a big issue among them. At times, it happened that a country conducted an operation in a particular area and could not achieve its targets, and when they presented their reports in coordination committee meetings, another country's force commander would complain that they were aware about the movement of insurgents at that particular time, but they had not been taken on board during the operation."

Mushahid is convinced the situation is going to get worse as the parliaments of several countries, including Britain, Canada and Germany, have given a deadline of 2011 for their troops to get out of Afghanistan. "And even President Obama is not very optimistic on the success of American military operations. If he assesses that he is getting into a Vietnam-like quagmire, he will certainly back off," said Mushahid.

Pakistan's choices
From the outset in October 2001, when Pakistan joined the US's "war on terror" and abandoned the Taliban, Islamabad has had serious reservations about the US's plans.

Former president General Pervez Musharraf tried to convince then-president George W Bush to reconcile with the moderate Taliban after September 11, 2001. But the US invasion of Afghanistan went ahead, and the US ignored Musharraf's advice to secure eight power centers in Afghanistan, not just Kabul, to effectively control the country.

Pakistan's strategic quarters were sure all along that the US's policies would lead to the quagmire that exists today, but under immense American pressure and the dire need for economic assistance, Pakistan stood by the US as its ally.

At the same time, though, it developed its own policies. The aim was to deceive the Americans, and also to save their own skin in a region in which Pakistan has to be ready to counter Iranian and Indian moves once the Americans leave.

From 2007 to 2009, Pakistan, under US pressure, was forced to mount military operations in its tribal areas in an all-out war against militants. This was unpopular in many parts of the country and the air force caused severe civilian casualties. Thousands of soldiers and militants were killed, and tens of thousands of residents were displaced.

The hostilities reached such a level that the army went so far as to declare militants like Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and the Swat Valley leader Mullah Fazlullah Indian agents. Stories were planted by Pakistani intelligence outfits that Indian Hindus were operating inside the Swat Valley.

One advantage that Pakistan did gain at this time was American satisfaction. For the first time, Washington was impressed and appreciative of Pakistan's sacrifices in the "war on terror" in Bajaur. They believed this had secured the corridor which goes up to Kapisa province in Afghanistan that had helped the Taliban reinforce its sanctuaries on the northeastern gates of Kabul.

Then came the the terror attack on the Indian city of Mumbai last November, which was carried out by gunmen linked to Pakistan, and the threat of an Indian reprisal attack on Pakistan was high.

This caused a lull in the fighting between the army and the militants and both Baitullah and Fazlullah announced that in the event of an Indian attack they would fight with the Pakistani army. Overnight, these two were officially hailed as "Pakistan's precious assets" and loyal to their country.

Subsequently, Islamabad struck a public peace deal with Fazlullah and a secret deal with Mehsud, after which he stopped all hostilities against Pakistan and announced he would join hands in a united front of mujahideen to fight against the foreign forces in Afghanistan. Similarly, the joint Pakistan army and North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation - Lion Heart - in Bajaur Agency and Mohmand Agency petered out.

In the Swat area the police force and the local administration have vanished and Pakistan was forced to enter into an arrangement with militants under which Islamic courts replaced the state's judicial system.

Even in this environment, though, the US believes it can trust Pakistan and that its Predator drones, along with the Pakistan military, will be able to guard the southern border with Afghanistan.

But the Taliban have regrouped and control large areas, including around the capital and a second tier behind that, as well as all the important provinces in the south.

Since 2001, Pakistan has had to suffer on the battlefield before striking peace deals. The US, too, has had a tough fight and striking Pakistan-like deals with the Taliban, before an exit strategy, is perhaps the only way forward.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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