Next US Move in Afghanistan? None
by Ramtanu Maitra on 04 Nov 2011 10 Comments

The recently concluded trip by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia centered around what could be the next US move in Afghanistan. The trip took place at a time when the White House has pretty much accepted the fact that it cannot change much in Afghanistan militarily. The war may get worse, and it certainly could; but an improvement in the military environment is well-nigh impossible. Even if it does get worse, however, a military defeat of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) - the innocuous name for the 150,000 armed-to-the-teeth US and NATO troops waging war in Afghanistan - at the hands of insurgents who have adopted irregular warfare is not going to happen.

The fact is, despite the effort and money the West has put in over the last 10 years, the war in Afghanistan is stalemated. What the West most wants now is to end it. This is why Secretary Clinton took a large, star-studded contingent along with her to Pakistan. Their objective was to end the war, which, if allowed to continue, could drag on for decades. Why does the White House want to end it now?

There are two reasons, neither of which have anything to do with Afghanistan. The first is the massive financial crisis that the United States faces today. Growing unemployment within the country; growing dissension as seen in the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations, and the government’s increasing indebtedness have made the White House realize that the war in Afghanistan has now become a thorn, draining almost $120 billion annually. The estimated overall cost of the 10-year-long war is close to $470billion. American taxpayers are becoming increasingly uneasy about continuing to spend large sums of money on a war that is now widely considered to be lost and whose purpose, in any case, is completely opaque.

The other reason is that the next US presidential election will be held in November 2012. President
Barack Obama, whose first term has so far been less than stellar, will be seeking a second term. Having made no headway in resolving any of the financial problems that the majority of Americans are burdened with, the White House would like to salvage support from a segment of the electorate by ending the war and bringing back a significant number of troops before November. The White House is quite desperate about the 2012 race; and it seems to be the only factor determining Washington’s future agenda in Afghanistan.

Why the crisis in Afghanistan?

Over the years, two US presidents - George W. Bush and Barack Obama - have trotted out a series of the most absurd explanations for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and US aims and objectives in the continuing engagement. All those earlier explanations, and the current desperation to get some troops out before November are illustrative of the fact that Washington has never had a clear policy in Afghanistan.

In 2001 then-President George W. Bush told the American people that the invasion was necessary because Afghanistan had become the home of the number-one anti-US al-Qaeda terrorist, Osama bin Laden, and his gang. He said the ruling Taliban government in Kabul had refused to hand over Osama to Washington and, therefore, the only option left for the “War on Terror” was to dislodge the Taliban government and capture Osama. Well, as we know, the Taliban was dislodged. But Osama fled to Pakistan, where America’s chief ally in the war on terror - Pakistan - gave him shelter and kept him alive and hidden for almost 10 years.

Once it became clear to the world that the prime target had eluded the US, President Bush shifted the engagement into a low-profile war, telling the Americans that his new prime objective was to develop a stable and democratic Afghanistan - a proposition that is almost as absurd as the “war on terror” itself. Within a period of four years, it became evident that this objective was a non-starter.

Those four years witnessed indiscriminate killing of the Pushtuns under the pretext of eliminating one Taliban shura or the other, Washington’s unwillingness to strengthen the Kabul regime under President Karzai, and facilitation of an opium explosion that fed the Taliban, druglords and the international banks. Together, these developments paved the way for the return of insurgents in large numbers in Afghanistan. By 2005 all prior objectives were forsaken and Washington’s only aim became “winning the war.” The long-drawn-out conflict has killed thousands, maimed many more. Most of these victims have been Afghans. The process also spread terrorism most effectively throughout Pakistan.

What is also important to note is that while the US and NATO were struggling to define their purpose in Afghanistan, two of their chief allies - Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - were working in tandem to undermine the coalition, pursuing a policy they had set in concrete decades earlier. Though nominally part of the “War on Terror” coalition, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have never veered from their own course. The recent visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Pakistan makes it evident that Washington may have finally acknowledged that.

The morphing of friends and enemies

When Saudi Arabia funded the Taliban movement in1995, it was to install a government in Kabul whose members were indoctrinated in the most orthodox Sunni Islamic ideology, Wahhabism, the national religion of Saudi Arabia. By then the kingdom had successfully reared the Taliban killers, using Pakistan as a staging ground and the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence wing as their guide and mentor. The Saudi policy on Afghanistan came to the fore in 1979, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and has remained firmly in place, including during the past 10years when it meant that the Saudis funded terrorists who were killing ISAF troops.

During the civil war in Afghanistan (1989-95), when various Mujahideen groups were fighting and killing each other to secure control over Kabul, Riyadh made it a point to see that its money went only to those Mujahideen leaders, such as Rasool Sayyaf and Yunus Khalis, who had embraced the Wahhabi version of Islam. The only concession that Riyadh made was to Islamabad, who was already doing a lot of legwork for the Saudis. Pakistan’s candidate was the mentally-unstable druglord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who sold himself lock, stock and barrel to Islamabad - and, for years, to the CIA - to get to Kabul. As a result, some of the Saudi money was funneled through the ISI to Hekmatyar, despite the fact that this favorite of Islamabad could never win the trust of Riyadh.

If Riyadh has been unbent in its policy on who should rule Afghanistan since 1979, so has Islamabad, or rather Rawalpindi - the headquarters of Pakistan’s military. Whether or not Washington wanted to believe it, Pakistan’s military has always made clear that its chief enemy was neither the Taliban (who Islamabad helped carry in its womb for years before delivering it to the satisfaction of its father, Saudi Arabia) nor Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist group (who Rawalpindi sheltered when Pakistan’s ally, the United States, was braying for their blood). Islamabad’s chief enemy, as always, has been India.

It has been well established that the Riyadh- and Islamabad-created orthodox Sunni terrorists of the 1980s and 1990s were trained to infiltrate and “liberate” Kashmir from India. Like the Pakistan military and the ISI, the terrorists also considered India their principal enemy. Riyadh, who considers Shi’a-majority Iran its prime adversary in the power struggle among the Islamic nations that is adroitly manipulated from London, had also funded a number of terrorist groups within Pakistan whose principal objective is to eliminate the local Shi’as and pull the plug on any Iranian efforts to establish a solid footing within Pakistan.

Pakistan’s second objective has been to secure political and security control over Afghanistan. Some former Pakistani generals, such as Aslam Beg and Hamid Gul among a few others, claim that control of Kabul would provide the Pakistan military the necessary “strategic depth” against a potential, if not certain, Indian invasion of the country. Since Pakistan has nuclear weapons and has become an all-weather friend of China, that claim is patently a ruse. Under no circumstances, could an Indian invasion of Pakistan end up with India occupying the country. Moreover, it is militarily ridiculous: imagine Pakistan’s elite military fleeing to Afghanistan, carrying its tanks, missiles and other hardware through the Khyber Pass, while the Indian Air Force, in control over Pakistan’s sky, lets them escape! Islamabad’s claim that control of Kabul is a national security necessity is as absurd as President Bush’s claim that the American troops are fighting in Afghanistan bring democracy to that country.

Pakistan’s support to the Pushtuns: What choice do they have?

Pakistan wants control over Afghanistan simply because if it does not have such control, the Russians, Iranians and Indians, who are quite close to the northern Afghans and Hazara Shi’as and are not-so-good friends of Pakistan, could move in to claim a permanent stake in that country. Islamabad also knows that the Pakistani Punjabis, who dominate Pakistan’s economic and military affairs, are deeply distrusted, if not hated outright, by the Afghan Pushtuns. No Pushtun leader accepts the Durand Line as a legitimate border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they consider the large number of Pushtuns who live on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line as their brothers.

If Pakistan does not work hard to help the Pushtuns come to power in Kabul, and instead allow the
Tajiks-Uzbeks-Hazaras, Nuristanis and others rule Afghanistan, hell may break loose in Pakistan’s virtually-ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (now named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), where almost all of Pakistan’s Pushtuns live. The outcome of that could be a bitter separation of the Pushtuns from Pakistan to join the Afghan Pushtuns in forming a “Greater Pushtunistan,” their century-old dream.

Whether or not it is too complex for Washington to understand, this is the sole reason why Pakistan must keep supporting one or the other faction of Pushtuns and challenging all the other Afghan ethnic groups. Because most Pushtuns do not like the Punjabis, the Pakistan military has had to go the extra mile to satisfy the most ambitious of them. Hekmatyar is one such ambitious Pushtun, as is Jalaluddin/Sirajuddin Haqqani. It is amusing to note that the current CIA chief (and former head of CentCom), Gen. David Petraeus, made it a point to present the evidence that ISI is working with the Haqqani group to Gen. Kayani, chief of the Pakistan Armed Services, during Sec. Clinton’s visit.

Of course, the ISI is, and always was, working with the Haqqani group; that goes as far back as one can remember, long before David Petraeus, a four-star general, had put a single star on his uniform. Pakistan’s ISI, and also the CIA, have been helping the druglord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The American people may not want to know of their own authorities’ ignoble activities, but they should take this bit of fact to heart now because Hekmatyar, with the help of the Pakistani military and ISI, Washington’s ally, is again in the front lines, killing American soldiers.

It has been said over and over again that the US wants Pakistan to “squeeze” the Haqqani group. But why would Pakistan do that? Is it because it would allow 20,000 or 30,000 American troops to come back home in 2012 and make Barack Obama look like a president who ended the war? Pakistan knows that with President Obama’s blessings CIA chief Gen. Petraeus can continue to kill “militants” and civilians in the FATA by means of repeated drone strikes for any length of time. But, why should the US continue to use drones to kill people within Pakistan when the war is pretty much lost and Afghanistan remains as divided and tribal as ever? In reality, at this point in time, all this is a sideshow. The Pakistanis know it, and they have no real reason to concede anything.

For Pakistan’s military, who had set their policy in concrete long before the Yankees appeared on the horizon, the end game is approaching. Americans cannot stomach this absurdity much longer, and the ripe apple may fall into Pakistan’s lap pretty soon. Yet this victory of Pakistan over the United States has not come easy. It has dealt a very severe body blow to Pakistan as well.

A Pyrrhic Victory

The most destabilizing aspect of this war on terror for Pakistan was the visible fragmentation of its
much-vaunted military. Built up over the years with a single focus - to be anti-India - the military, arguably Pakistan’s most powerful and perhaps only central institution, is no longer monolithic. It is split between pro-US (or not-anti US) and anti-US groups. As a corollary, the Pakistani military now harbors two powerful factions – the anti-jihadi and the pro-jihadi groups. Although the entire military remains virulently anti-India, these factions consider settling their inner contradictions the highest priority. Indeed, the failure to settle the contradictions could precipitate an existential crisis in either, or both, of the groups. The terrorist attack on Pakistan’s Army General Headquarters in October 2009 and the brazen, yet highly calculated attack on the Mehran Naval Base in May 2011, only prove the point.

Pakistan’s military and the ISI have nurtured and sheltered various terrorist groups for decades for the sake of “liberating” the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the clutches of Islamabad’s principal enemy, India. While some of these trained terrorists are Punjabis, many are Pushtuns, as well. Because of the Pakistan military’s alliance with US/NATO to eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan, all of whom are Pushtuns, the Pushtun terrorist members within Pakistan openly revolted against their controllers - the Pakistan military and its intelligence arm, ISI.

At the same time, the Punjabi terrorist groups (e.g., the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Hizbul Mujahideen and a host of others bred and nurtured on Pakistani soil) have noticed the military’s unwillingness, perhaps due to its “commitment” to the Americans, to go after India any longer, and have turned anti-establishment as a result. Some of them have now fully dedicated themselves to killing minority Shi’as and Ahmedis. Generally their breakaway from the establishment could spell serious danger for Pakistani society - particularly for those in Pakistan who want to keep their feet simultaneously planted in a number of boats, pretending to be pro-West, anti-India and pro-Saudi at the same time.

The siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid in July 2007, and its inept handling by the double-speaking former president, Pervez Musharraf, resulted in the severing of Islamabad’s ties with the militants from the strategic Swat Valley and Chitral districts. As of now, the leader of the Swat Valley gang of terrorists, Mullah Radio, an avowed enemy of Islamabad, is inside Afghanistan, plotting to stage attacks inside Pakistan to hurt the Pakistani military.

Finally, the 10-year-long war in Afghanistan; the Pakistan military’s ghastly dance with the US/NATO killing machine; the killing of thousands of Pakistanis, mostly in the tribal areas and of Pushtun ethnic origin, by the Pakistani military and by the US Special Ops officers and Islamabad-accepted, CIA-orchestrated drone attacks; and the ham-handed approach of the Americans, endorsed by the Pakistan military - these cumulative developments have changed the Pakistanis’ attitude toward the United States. Polls indicate that, at least for the time being, the majority of Pakistanis have bumped India from the top of the “Greatest Enemies of Pakistan” list to second place, and now consider the United States to be enemy number one.

This shift in public view will surely pose serious problems for Islamabad in its future policymaking. Quite apart from the fact that the paralyzed Pakistani elite would prefer closer relations with the United States rather than with the jihadis of the Islamic world, Islamabad will soon find it necessary to change this public opinion in order to function with any credibility on the world scene. 

The author is South  Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review 
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