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
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
"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
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.
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
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[email protected]