SPEAKING FREELY A way out for new army chief
By Atif Salahuddin
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General Raheel Sharif's succession as Pakistan's new army chief, after a victory over other aspirants to the powerful and coveted position, has finally ended the enduring six-year tenure of General Ashfaq Kayani.
During his time at the helm, General Kayani oversaw a rapidly deteriorating internal and external security situation. This included numerous domestic terror attacks - Iraq-style killings that claimed thousands of Pakistani lives - infiltration attacks on the Mehran
naval and Kamra air bases and an audacious attack on the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi itself.
If this was not enough, Pakistan's purported "ally", the US, launched the embarrassing Abbottabad raid which killed Osama bin Laden, and the murderer of two Pakistanis in Lahore - CIA agent Raymond Davis - was simply allowed to go home as a free man.
US drone attacks, which have become symbolic of American impunity and intransigence in dealing with Pakistan, increased exponentially with thousands of men, women and children being slaughtered in the tribal areas all in the name of fighting terrorism.
Amid all these incidents, it was perhaps the slaughter of 24 Pakistani troops in Salala at the hands of the US-led NATO forces which most undermined Kayani's position - if the commander-in-chief could launch operations in the tribal areas under American pressure but not lift a finger to defend and avenge his troops, what faith could the rest of Pakistan have in him?
General Kayani's weak leadership, lack of robustness and caving into American pressure will characterize his legacy.
Incoming General Raheel Sharif rightly has some weighty expectations to bear; he has to reverse the decline overseen by his predecessors and improve the security situation of the country, all while restoring the prestige of the army.
Raheel has had the advantage of holding a clean slate. Having served as the inspectorate of training and evaluation for the Pakistan army in his last position, he was perceived as having relatively clean hands as far as the fighting in the tribal areas is concerned.
However, all of that has been put into jeopardy with the commencement of the fighting in North Waziristan this week following a suicide attack in Khajuri which killed 20 Pakistani troops. Provocations such as this were always likely given that America has been pushing for such a military operation for over two years now. In ominous military action that has followed, eyewitnesses have alleged that scores of men, women, and children have either been directly targeted or killed as a result of indiscriminate shelling ordered by local commanders.
Drone strikes by America have also continued after the changing of the guard. In this respect Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's pre-election sloganeering has also pragmatically evolved from strongly condemning and demanding the end of the US drone strikes, to the post-election position of not only accepting them but effectively ending all talk of negotiations with the tribal insurgents.
The convenient drone strike assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud and a string of alleged militant attacks have put paid to that. This though is hardly surprising, for the US is not going to renounce such tactically useful violence and Sharif has determined that he can ill afford to be on the wrong side of Washington.
Michael Klugman, writing on Nawaz Sharif's recent US visit, states, "As US forces struggle to attain some level of stabilization success in Afghanistan in the months prior to their full withdrawal, Washington will be in no mood to modify - much less cease - its drone policy. It will hold fast to what it regards as the only available and effective counter militancy tool deployable against Pakistan-based extremists that wreak havoc in Afghanistan - and on Americans fighting in that country."
It is all too easy for General Raheel to be sucked into this continuum of violence initiated by Musharraf's ruinous polices of supporting the US in its grand objectives back in 2001. What is most urgently required at this stage with the change of leadership is a realistic evaluation of Pakistani policy and its objectives in the region.
Stepping back and considering the overall situation leads one to consider the inevitable politics of this military equation: America is currently in the process of reducing and scaling down its footprint in Afghanistan. This is necessary for two reasons; the first is maintaining such a huge military force with such long supply lines is immensely costly, with the current annual cost per US soldier put at US$2.1 million. The US now runs a fiscal deficit of $1.4 trillion annually and it cannot simply endure such costs indefinitely.
Secondly, a bigger military force, having failed to achieve the goal of insurgency elimination since the US occupation of 2001, is now actually a liability as it only provides a bigger magnet for insurgent attacks with the added domestic political cost back at home.
In spite of this, America has clear strategic goals in Afghanistan and in Central and Southeast Asia. Containing and rolling back any powerful state from dominating Eurasia, such as Russia or China or potentially an independent Islamic power, whilst securing US interests in terms of exploiting oil and gas supplies is a long-standing US objective and paramount.
If the US with its "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific cannot countenance Chinese hegemony there, how can it accept it in Central Asia? Thus the US, with even its enormous but finite resources, is increasingly counting on empowering India to act as a counterweight to China which in turn requires a meek and compliant Pakistan.
The US, for all its talk, is not about to abandon Afghanistan, and it wants Pakistan to facilitate its continuing presence, albeit on a smaller scale. General Talaat Masood, no dove when it comes to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), summed up recently in the Express Tribune, "As of now, Washington needs maximum support from Islamabad on several counts - nudging the Taliban to come to the negotiating table... contain the Haqqani and other militant groups in North Waziristan and pockets of FATA to prevent them from attacking US forces... (and) effectively manage the border to prevent militant groups from joining the insurgency in Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal phase."
In all of this, there is no strategic Pakistani interest to be gained by continuing a war which serves US interests. Pakistani troops are being attacked and ambushed and are needlessly dying or being injured upon no rationale with many within the army expressing growing disquiet at this US war. Musharraf and Kayani were both undermined by continuing to push the boat out to facilitate US objectives until they ran out of political capital to continue executing such policies.
On the contrary, it is allowing rogue elements to use the cover of a population under attack to exploit the situation and will inevitably be used by external actors such as India, which now has a burgeoning presence in Afghanistan, to further their agenda. It is also recognizable that such terror attacks actually bolster the argument for America and its proponents for military action in FATA; no terror attacks, no prospect of the much desired military action in the border hinterlands.
Stratfor in a recent analysis on militant violence wrote, "There is a widely held narrative that jihadists are merely crazy people who employ violence for the sake of violence. This is clearly false. While there are unquestionably some psychotic and sociopathic personalities within the movement, taken as a whole, jihadists' use of violence - both terrorism and insurgency - is quite rational."
In this context of examining potential motives the Taliban may be fighting America in Afghanistan but they would be highly irrational to alienate the rest of Pakistan which they use as a refuge with such terror attacks.
General Raheel may also be in the process of contemplating a wider operation in North Waziristan thinking he has the impetus to tread where Kayani could not. However, he also has the chance to reset the relationship with both America and the tribal areas to the pre-2001 era. The removal of the majority of the nearly 150,000 Pakistani troops from the tribal areas will help heal internal wounds, stabilize Pakistan's internal security environment and bring relief to the crisis-hit economy through a reduction in military deployment costs.
Raheel can take the easy and predictable route of continuing his predecessors' US security agenda with the all the disastrous consequences that entails or he can take the difficult but potentially richly rewarding course of extricating Pakistan from a colonial war which serves only an imperial empire.
Peace in the tribal regions may not be in America's interest but it is certainly in Pakistan's and that of the region. General Raheel's intentions will be best judged by his actions; he has a historic opportunity to help bring closure to this painful period in Pakistan's history or continue with the same failed policy that breeds more violence in a fragile country that already teeters on the brink.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Atif Salahuddin is a writer who specializes in foreign policy and Pakistani affairs.