Challenges on the Afghan Front
Ghastly terrorism has struck again! This time in India leaving more than 200 dead, hundreds injured and a nation traumatised. Terrorsim this time has struck a country, which is located in a region struck by militancy and violence,
and one that within is suffering from a dozen plus local insurgencies and has border problems with most of its neighbours. Indiaclaims the terrorists came from Pakistan yet the government of Pakistan insists that India has yet to provide evidence supporting its claim.At the international front, however, India has pushed its case — supported completelyby Washington.
The result was that the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 9572 putting four Pakistani individuals and three organisations on the terrorist list. Pakistan has been obliged to freeze the assets of the organisations and individuals,ban the organisations and restrict the movement of individuals. Interestingly, though one of the individuals put on the list is dead since 2002!
Meanwhile, whatevertheorigins of this ghastly terrorism and the temporary derailment it may create for the Pakistan-India dialogue, ithas greatly underscored the urgency of dealing with the cross-territorial dimension of terrorism. Specifically for US President-elect Barack Obama, the Afghanistan challenge becomes even more paramount; no less its Pakistan dimension. In fact, after the Mumbai carnage the US administration has completely supported Delhi’s international effort to censure Pakistan and demand immediate action from Islamabad. Within two weeks of the Mumbai carnage, top State Department and US military officials made unscheduled visits to Pakistan to coerce it into action. Barack Obama supported the Indian position that India reserved the right to “pre-emptive strikes” against what he and India claimed were “terrorist sanctuaries” in Pakistan.
The convergence between the Indian and the US positions on terrorist sanctuaries within Pakistan supposedly targetting India and Afghanistan have already emerged.
This accentuates Obama’s already underway Afghanistan initiative. Even before being sworn in as president, the Democrat president is already engaged with Washington’s most pressing foreign policy issue, how to put Washington’s post 9/11 failing Afghan policy on a recovery track.Obama’s stated policy during his election campaign was to increase US troops in Afghanistan and go all out using military force to hit out at high-value terrorist targets inside Pakistan’s tribal areas.
So serious is the situation in Afghanistan that already during US election campaign a crucial briefing on Afghanistan was organised for Obama’s key foreign policy aides by the Bush administration. Key State department, CENTCOM and CIA representatives plus Afghan experts participated in the briefing.
Obama’s election commitments of inducting more troops notwithstanding, there are early indications that suggest that the new administration opt for a gradual mixing of dialogue with its hitherto predominantly force-focused policy.
These include the de-linking of the Taleban from Al Qaeda; conciliatory approach including indirect dialogue overtures to the Taleban; the Saudi initiative; viewing of the peace process within a regional context.
The force increase will undoubtedly come. In 2008, in the two military operations in Afghanistan, the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF Operation, Washington US has 35,000 troops with 37,000 more from other NATO countries. By early January additional troops will start landing in Afghanistan and positioned in the South. In addition to combat forces, the US will beef up its air assets used for reconnaissance and transportation as well as combat and augment its intelligence-gathering and logistics capability. US General Mckiernan maintains that without security for the local population his troops cannot launch a counter-insurgency operation.
While the Americans are seeking to apply more force, the ground situation is forcing top US generals to endorse reconciliation with the Afghan insurgents. For example in his November 19 interview, Mckiernan acknowledged reconciliation to be a “very powerful tool” advocating it with the Taleban as well.
Having ignored Pakistan’s advice of promoting intra-Afghan reconciliation, when negotiating the 2001 Bonn Agreement, Washington has arrived at this conclusion a few years later. The quagmire that policy blunders have created now defies easy ways forward.
Linked to the Afghan policy is Washington’s policy towards Pakistan’s tribal areas. To some extent Washington’s confusion on how best to move forward on Afghanistan is reflected in its dealings with Pakistan; a country that senior American generals believe has replaced Iraq as Al Qaeda’s main focus. In a major policy statement, General James Conway the US general Head of the Marine Corps and member of the Joint Chief of Staff was quoted in a
Wall Street Journal interview of November 26, saying “Iraq is now a rear-guard action on the part of Al Qaeda…they’ve changed their strategic focus to Pakistan, because that country
is the closest place where you have the nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons.”
Washington’s belief that the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan gets its major boost from Pakistan’s tribal areas prompted Washington to jointly launch ‘Operation Lion Heart’ along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Washington vacillates between grudgingly acknowledging Pakistani military efforts to emphatic urgings of ‘do more’, and its fear of nuclear terrorism. Key elements of this US policy are regular missile attacks using drones and the unmanned spy vehicles.
These attacks, which Washington claims has killed some high-value Al Qaeda targets, have also killed many innocent Pakistani civilians. Hence the outrage against the US and the government is at all-time high. The Obama administration will also have to address this issue.
Meanwhile, with the scale of terrorism Pakistan faces, Islamabad will not acquiesce to Washington’s policy prescriptions.
Senior Pakistani general, including the Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, have told their counterparts that their prescription of more use of force in heavily populated tribal areas is akin to the Americans being asked to use heavy force in New York city. What is merely “collateral damage” for the US is killing of Pakistani citizens.
The Afghan ground situation is deteriorating on many fronts: Taleban gaining strength, increase in Western military casualties, poppy cultivation, and the falling popularity graph of President Hamid Karzai. All this creates for a very pessimistic prognosis for the Afghan presidential elections due next fall; and no less a formidable challenge for the Obama’s presidency.
Nasim Zehra is an Islamabad-based
national security strategist