NO AMERICAN President has ever enjoyed the goodwill of the world in the way that Barack Obama does. He is notably young, deeply liberal and idealistic, and everything he has said and done so far promises to bring back order and a measure of sanity to a world that is now in total disarray. The world cannot, therefore, afford to have him fail. But failure could be staring him in the face in Afghanistan because, despite a substantial change in approach, the ‘new strategy’ that he unveiled on March 27, 2009, continues to bear a striking resemblance to that of his predecessor’s. It, therefore, risks meeting the same fate.
Like Bush, Obama fervently believes that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without Pakistan’s wholehearted commitment to uprooting the Taliban and al Qaeda. Motivating Pakistan to do so, therefore, remains the central focus. The difference between their approaches is one of method. Having initially waved the big stick at Pakistan, the Bush administration went out of its way to reward it for joining the War on Terror. The Obama administration is also talking of a “long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan”, but the partnership is conditional on its full cooperation in the war against the al Qaeda in Pakistan, and on deep-seated internal reform.
Obama’s reasons for holding the Pakistani Army directly accountable have been articulated in the report of the recent Asia Society Task Force. The Task Force, which included Richard Holbrooke and Obama’s National Security Adviser Gen James Jones, concluded that Pakistan’s past policies towards Kashmir and Afghanistan have created the militaryindustrial- terrorist nexus on which the terror network now thrives. It also made an important distinction between the civilian government, which considers this network a threat to the country rather than an asset, and Pakistan’s security establishment, which does not.
But Obama also knows that the Pakistan army cannot be coerced into fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban within Pakistan. It has to be made to see for itself that this is in its own interest. That is where his strategy is weakest. He wants the US and other countries to help establish civilian supremacy by “strengthening civilian institutions in Pakistan and supporting economic development outside the military-controlled sectors of the economy”.
But this will take time. In the immediate future, the only way to change its perceptions is through regional efforts to address Pakistan’s security concerns about its borders, and by attempting to wean away the moderate Taliban. As the Task Force report puts it, “Rightly or wrongly, Pakistan’s security establishment believes it faces an existential threat, and it is unlikely to eliminate the means it has developed to counter that threat unless its most basic concerns — threats to Pakistan’s survival and territorial integrity —are addressed.”
The naiveté of this prescription takes one’s breath away. In the past two decades, all the relentless aggression, whether to the west or the east, has come out of Pakistan. Every single offensive, whether in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s west, or Kashmir to Pakistan’s east, has been launched by its army through its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate of the Pakistani Army. It was the ISI that first sent Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and then the Taliban, into Afghanistan and plunged that hapless country back into war. It was the ISI that nurtured the United Jihad Council in Muzaffarabad and sent its mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba into Kashmir. The Task Force report would have us believe that it did this only to settle the borders of Pakistan. Hence its breathtaking conclusion that the onus for making the Pakistani army join the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban rests on Afghanistan and India. In other words: Give the Pakistan army what it wants and all will be well in our War Against Terror.
IT IS a measure of US desperation that the Task Force report does not contain a single echo of the sentiments that fill the pages of Pakistani journals every day. As Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times on April 6, almost all Pakistanis still believe that this is not their war; that forcing their troops to fight it is fratricide. The Task Force does not state that the overwhelming bulk of the Pakistani Army fully shares this view. So it is unable to explain why, if protecting Pakistan’s territorial integrity is its sole obsession, it has steadfastly refused to move even one of the 18 divisions and 20 independent brigades it has on the Indian border, and has committed only two divisions to the Afghan border.
Obama could be staring at failure in Afghanistan. His new strategy bears striking resemblance to Bush’s
Nor is it able to explain why, if in 2007-08 when the civil war in Pakistan was escalating daily and there was not even a whisper of a threat from India on the LOC, the Pakistani army did not move any of its three infantry divisions and five infantry brigades stationed on it, to the Afghan border, and why as late as September 2008 it was mechanising another infantry division and three infantry brigades, thereby rendering them ‘unsuitable’ for combat in the mountains.
The plain truth is that the Indian threat is a pretext for inaction. Apart from all the reasons given above, the Pakistani Army does not want to take on the Taliban, because it is not sure it can win. For, the Taliban in the tribal areas have reverted to the oldest form of war that mankind has known, in which the civilians, far from being exempt, are the sacrificial pawns. The invader kills civilians on the flimsiest of pretexts; the civilians turn to their government to protect them; the government fails because its forces cannot be everywhere all the time; in desperation, therefore, the civilians flee or buy peace by submitting to the invader. This is the oldest mode of state formation. That we have reverted to it shows how far the Westphalian order has collapsed in the face of the terrorist response to globalisation.
Victory in this war is measured by one’s ability to provide security to ordinary people. The Pakistani Army knows that it can win battles, secure towns and safeguard a few main highways. But it simply does not have the numbers to blanket an entire region so that people can live secure lives.
This is why it has insisted on maintaining its ambivalence towards the Taliban. It knows that a political settlement in Afghanistan that allows moderate Taliban leaders to come in from the cold is a necessary precondition to peace in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But till Obama came on the scene, no one in the US administration was listening.
It also knows that the alternative to being dragged in — of Pakistan pulling out of the war unilaterally — also does not exist. That is most probably why, in 2008, when Musharraf was gone and the new government proved too weak to prevent the creeping advance of the US’s war into the tribal areas, it turned in desperation to the only remaining expedient: to provoke a military confrontation with India. That was the cause of last year’s July 7 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul which was traced back to the ISI, and of its peripheral involvement in the November 26 Lashkar-e Toiba attack on Mumbai.
Formulating a new settlement for Afghanistan needs to be delegated to third parties not involved in the war
Obama may have begun to understand this. Hence, his focus on isolating the hardcore of the Taliban by weaning away the rest. But the US strategy for a political settlement remains muddled because he has yet to learn that one cannot kill with one hand, and make friends with the other. The decision to involve only Afghanistan and Pakistan, and relegate Afghanistan’s other neighbours to a diffuse and largely symbolic contact group, will therefore not work.
Formulating a new political settlement for Afghanistan needs to be delegated to third parties not involved in the war. As Iran’s Foreign Minister indicated at a UN meeting at The Hague last month, warring parties can be induced to bury their differences, create a workable constitution and form a government by the assurance that foreigners will then go away. Pakistan should — indeed, must— be a part of this group, along with Iran and Uzbekistan, but it will lose that right if it throws itself into the fight against the Taliban.
The offer of a political settlement should, therefore, be made before an intensification of military operations. It should be framed by a regional group of Afghanistan’s neighbours and the group should, ideally, include India. Pakistan stiffly opposes Indian involvement, and the AfPak formula evolved by the US is largely the result of its bowing to Islamabad’s wishes. But the new administration needs to understand that there may be no peace settlement in Afghanistan if India is left out of the peace process. For that would leave the possibility open for the Pakistani Army to buy peace with al Qaeda and the Taliban in the west by helping them to continue the Jihad in the east. If terrorist attacks on India continue, New Delhi will be forced to strike at their bases in Pakistan. Knowing that, the Pakistani Army will not move a single soldier from the Indian border. Obama’s new strategy would remain stillborn.
Jha is a Delhi-based columnist and author of Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute