Pakistan at odds with Obama's vision
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - While United States President Barack Obama, after months of
deliberation, has finally laid out his strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Washington's most important ally in the region, is charting a new course that
will place it at odds with the United States.
Obama on Tuesday announced the dispatch of 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan
over the next seven months, while also saying he would begin a draw-down of the
US's presence in 18 months. The new inflow will see about 100,000 US troops in
Afghanistan. In addition, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) and other members of the International Security Assistance Force
currently have about 40,000 troops.
At the heart of Obama's plan appears to be the desire to sharply escalate the
war in Afghanistan in an attempt to tighten the noose around the Taliban and
al-Qaeda and then to open political dialogue with the Taliban that would lead
to the dissolution of al-Qaeda's structures in South Asia and open the way for
a US exit in the next few years.
Abdullah Shah Mazhar, a former supreme commander of the banned Pakistani
militant group, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, when contacted by Asia Times Online
concerning Obama's address, said, "I did not get the chance to hear President
Obama's speech but, as you said, if he is is sending additional troops to
Afghanistan, I think [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's [recent] statement is
sufficient to answer him, that is, the Taliban can fight against the foreign
occupation forces for the next seven years undeterred, without any support or
The Obama administration's concerns over the situation in Afghanistan have been
heightened in the past month by the realization of the rapid regrouping of
al-Qaeda in South Asia - and not only there. Specifically, alarm bells rang
loudly when an al-Qaeda cell was found in Chicago last month. Orchestrated by a
top al-Qaeda commander based in South Asia, Ilyas Kashmiri, members of the cell
allegedly planned attacks in Denmark and India. (See
Al-Qaeda has plans for its new recruit Asia Times Online, November 3,
In this context, Pakistan is a key player, with Obama saying on Tuesday that
Washington was "committed to a partnership ... that is built on a foundation of
mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual trust" and that Pakistan loomed
ever-larger in his administration's strategic calculations.
Herein lies the rub: Pakistan, increasingly driven by the military
establishment, is bent on looking after its own interests, regardless of the
damage it might cause to the US's plans. Pakistan is most worried of a
spillover of the Afghan war into its territory - it is already fighting
militants in the tribal areas.
In a recent letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Obama offered
Pakistan an expanded strategic partnership, including the carrot of additional
military and economic cooperation, along with the stick of a warning with
unusual bluntness that Pakistan's use of insurgent groups to pursue its policy
goals would not be tolerated.
The two-page letter, which included an offer to help reduce tensions between
Pakistan and India, was delivered to Zardari by National Security Adviser James
Jones. It was accompanied by assurances from Jones that the US would increase
its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan and that it planned no early
Pakistan's present focus is squarely on cleaning up the mess in the tribal
areas through military operations against anti-establishment militants. At the
same time, it wants to limit its role in the US-led "war on terror", in which
it has played a part since 2001, by striking peace deals with those groups
which do not harm its national security.
Obama's letter called for closer collaboration against all extremist groups,
naming five: al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba
and the Pakistani Taliban organization known as Tehrik-e-Taliban. In a subtle
way, Obama said that ambiguity in Pakistan's relationship with any of them
could no longer be ignored.
Pakistan, though, while wanting to play a mediating role between the Taliban
and the US, does not want any active role in fighting the Taliban before they
are eventually offered an olive branch as they do not pose any challenge to
Pakistan's security. Islamabad is, though, prepared to tackle al-Qaeda and its
Addressing this issue, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W Patterson, on
Wednesday morning in Islamabad told a select group, of which Asia Times Online
was a part, "The US military is working very closely with their Pakistani
counterparts and both understand the threat levels from these militant groups.
As far as Taliban commanders like [Mullah] Nazir and [Hafiz] Gul Bahadur are
concerned, if the Pakistan army has cut a deal with them, it is not because
Pakistan has any sympathies with them, but to prioritize its target during the
course of military operations."
The ambassador continued, "We aim to make a very close coordination between the
two armies [Pakistan's and the US's in Afghanistan]. Recently, a Pakistani
military official was invited to Afghanistan and he surveyed Afghanistan’s
northwestern borders, and similarly, the US commander of the eastern region had
an aerial survey of the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The
[top] American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has
visited Pakistan six times this year and only very recently met [Pakistani army
chief] General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kiani to take him into his confidence over
NATO's Afghan strategy against the Taliban."
All the same, the US is aware of the tactical disharmony with Pakistan.
"Let me be very clear on this point, the US does not have any plans for
reconciliation with the Taliban. We aim to make an arrangement, though, to
speak with tribal elders and with the Taliban, but it is strictly in the
spheres of the US policy that those Taliban will agree on peace terms and be
integrated with Afghan society," Patterson said.
The US aims to complement its dependency on Pakistan by bringing other
countries in the region into the loop, including India and the Central Asian
republics, to fight against the Taliban insurgency. All the same, Patterson
stressed that Pakistan would remain the key ally in this war. She also rejected
reports that NATO had started moving a significant amount of its supplies
through a Central Asian corridor into northern Afghanistan.
"Hardly 10% comes through Central Asia; 80% of the supplies are still coming
through Pakistan," she said.
As a result of military operations in Pakistan, the most recent of which is
continuing in North Waziristan, militant activities have been curtailed.
However, Islamabad appreciates that the use of force is not a permanent
solution; it only disperses the militants and they soon regroup.
As a result, Pakistan wants to strike peace deals with the militants. As in the
past, though, while this will restore order inside Pakistan, it will redirect
the militants to Afghanistan. This good for Pakistan, but it could have dire
consequences for NATO troops.
Similarly on the political front, the Pakistani military establishment aims to
change the dynamics of local politics in which the role of pro-US forces will
Recently, under the military’s pressure, Zardari issued an amended ordinance in
which the prime minister, instead of the president, is chairman of the National
Command Authority which controls Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
The military also wants opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim
League to become a part of the government, even suggesting that members of his
party hold such important cabinet posts as interior, foreign affairs and
Alternatively, it has been conveyed to Sharif that the present government, many
of whose members face court action following the expiry of an amnesty
ordinance, could be forced out.
Washington did not have any option but to stay in Afghanistan and supplement
its forces with additional troops and resources, otherwise the Taliban would
take control once again and al-Qaeda would regroup and carry out more brazen
attacks, not only in the US but across the world.
But unlike after the September 11 attacks, the US essentially now has to act
alone. European countries are with Washington, but, very much like Pakistan,
they are looking primarily after their own interests and are reluctant to do
any heavy lifting.
Obama said in his speech on Tuesday that the withdrawal of US forces would
start after 18 months. This projection depends on the notion that the Americans
can build the capacity of the Afghan forces to a level at which they can
"As far as the Afghan army is concerned, it is as good and professional an army
as any country could have," said a US military official who was with Ambassador
Patterson on Wednesday morning.
Yet as the world has seen, when US forces recently pulled out from all of their
bases in Nuristan province, leaving the Afghan National Army to guard the
borders, the province quickly fell to the Taliban.
The US might be sending in more troops into Afghanistan, but they, too, could
be in for a rough ride for a long time to come, while across the border
Pakistan will be taking care of its own interests.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]