Washington’s Two-for-One Af-Pak Policy
by Ramtanu Maitra on 24 Aug 2009 0 Comment

On March 27, US President Barack Obama told his administration members and the media that “the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbour, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier.” 

Announcing his “comprehensive strategy” for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which no one in Washington would, or could, clearly define, Obama declared his appointment of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke “to serve as Special Representative for both countries, and to work closely with General Petraeus to integrate our civilian and military efforts.”

However, it is now evident that President Obama and his experts were at least eight years late in their appreciation of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s “inextricable” links.  A genuinely combined “Af-Pak” approach could have made a significant different in 2001.  But today, the Afghan Taliban is no longer a small minority as it was in 2001.  Thanks to eight years of mindless killing of civilian Pashtuns under the pretext of killing the “Taliban,” the insurgency in Afghanistan has drawn in Pashtuns from almost all tribes and is now a mighty force. 

The opium explosion, again thanks to the foreign occupiers and a steady stream of financing by the Saudis, has enabled the insurgents to procure sophisticated weapons. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban used its sojourn inside Pakistan when the chips were down, facilitated by the Pakistani Army and the ISI, not only to regroup themselves, but also did a yeoman’s job in helping to organize fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan’s tribal areas to unleash an insurgency movement in that country that staggered both Islamabad and Washington.

The Obama administration’s policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan today is combined in name only, and has about as much prospect of success as its ill-fated predecessors.

‘We Are All Taliban Now…’

According to at least one high-level American observer, Afghan insurgents, who are mostly Pashtuns, expanded their area of influence from 30 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts in 2003 to some 160 districts by the end of 2008.  Meanwhile, insurgent attacks increased by 60 percent between October 2008 and April 2009 alone.  Since the other major Afghan ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, control between them almost 35-40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, it is fair to say that at this point in time, Afghan Pashtuns control almost all of the districts where they are a majority.  In effect, the so-called Afghan Taliban fighters do not need Pakistani territory to hide them any longer.  They are out in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan in droves, challenging the foreign occupiers.

The rationale for an “Af-Pak” policy lies in what happened between 2001 and late 2005.  After the US invaded Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 to rout the ruling Taliban regime, the minority Taliban members disappeared into the larger Pashtun ethnic community straddling the non-demarcated border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They took shelter in the Pashtun-dominated areas of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).  Some Afghan Taliban also moved into Quetta and adjacent areas in Baluchistan, where they sought protection of the Pakistani military and intelligence. All this while, Pakistan was under President Pervez Musharraf, a military general and a strong ally of Washington. 

When the US Special Forces landed in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s FATA was virtually the same as it was when the British Raj left the subcontinent in 1947. As a New York Times correspondent pointed out at the time, “the FATA stands apart from the rest of Pakistan, with little or no government presence and little or no development. Not 1 person in 5 can read or write. Pakistani political parties are banned. Universal suffrage wasn’t allowed until 1997. Until recently, tribesmen could claim no protection by Pakistan’s Constitution or its courts. Inside the FATA, the locals do not even change the time on their clocks, as other Pakistanis do, when daylight savings begins. ‘English time,’ it is called.”

But the incursion of the al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters into the FATA changed all that.  It is interesting to note that both Washington and Islamabad knew what was happening in the FATA, and they also knew that whatever was happening there may have serious repercussions in Afghanistan and in the adjoining areas of Pashtun tribe-inhabited Pakistan. 

It was evident that if the United States had then adopted an Af-Pak policy, considering Afghanistan and Pakistan’s bordering areas as one, two things could have happened. To begin with, the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaeda, who were regrouping inside the tribal areas, would not have had a safe resting place and would have remained on the run, definitely undermining their ability to regroup.

Secondly, if the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaeda were challenged then by a concerted Af-Pak policy, it is most likely that Pakistan’s FATA would not have become the virtually independent nation run by the Pashtun insurgents that it is today. 

But, Washington was not interested. Instead of implementing a genuine “Af-Pak” policy, it chose to keep up a somewhat half-hearted military pressure on Pakistan.  For instance, when Pakistan’s Pres. Musharraf made his much-acclaimed visit to Camp David and met President George W. Bush on June 24, 2003, new elements had already begun to emerge in the Afghan theatre. US troops in Afghanistan were encountering more enemy attacks than ever before, and clashes between Pakistani and Afghan troops along the tribal borders were recorded regularly.

On July 16, 2003, speaking to Electronic Telegraph of the United Kingdom, US troop commander General Frank “Buster” Hagenbeck, based at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, reported increased attacks on US and Afghan forces by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other anti-US groups that had joined hands. He also revealed other very interesting information: the Taliban and its allies had regrouped in Pakistan and were recruiting fighters from religious schools in Quetta in a campaign funded by drug traffickers. At the time, Hagenbeck also said that these enemies of American and Afghan forces had been joined by al-Qaeda commanders, who were establishing new cells and sponsoring the attempted capture of American troops. One other piece of news of import from Hagenbeck at the time was that the Taliban had seized whole swathes of the country. But these detailed warnings went unheeded.

Dangerous Times Two

Over another two years or so, FATA emerged as a state within a state. It came under the control of anti-Islamabad and anti-Washington Pashtun insurgents, commonly clubbed together as the “Pakistani Taliban.” (In Washington, everything needs to be labelled simply so as not to be unwieldy for newspersons and policymakers.) It was a process that would, in fact, once again separate Afghanistan and Pakistan, rendering each country more troubled and dangerous than before. 

In becoming the hosts of training camps for the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda operations, Pakistani Pashtun and other tribesmen and insurgents procured arms and training themselves.  By 2007, FATA had become the principle staging ground for al-Qaeda terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan along the Pakistan borders. The victims of these attacks were the US, NATO and Afghan troops in Kandahar, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika, Khowst, Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.

The “Af-Pak” policy was nowhere to be seen. US troops and the CIA were sending the missiles and drones to kill the al-Qaeda operatives, while the so-called Pakistani Taliban leaders were gathering strength and recruiting more to confront the Pakistani military. It is only recently that the United States began targeting the Pakistani “Taliban” leaders, and only after the whole area had been fully radicalized.

What was Musharraf’s Islamabad doing all this while? They were cutting deals with the tribal leaders. As former US Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker pointed out: “In 2004, they (Pakistani authorities) cut deals with the militants; in 2005, another set of deals with the militants. These deals involve agreements on the part of the militants not to attack the Pakistanis, but they seem not to include any language about cross-border raids.  How is it that this, our ally in the war on terror, can cut such deals without you loudly complaining?”

Of course complaining seldom solves any problem, and this case was no exception. What happened instead is that the Afghan Taliban was helped to regroup and take over more than half of Afghanistan’s 364 districts by the spring of 2009. And, when the so-called horses had all bolted the stable, President Obama and his vaunted experts moved in to shut the stable door. The Af-Pak policy promoted by President Obama at this stage is not a single policy: it is two entirely different policies merged into a sound byte: Af-Pak.

Look Close, See What You Get

The Af-Pak policy adopted by the Obama administration has two basic ingredients. First is its Pakistan policy, which will be overseen by Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. This will involve an attempt to stabilize Pakistan, largely dictated by the demands made by Islamabad’s power triumvirate – Kiyani, Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. The main objective will be to provide President Zardari adequate funds to take care of Pakistan’s highly-stressed economy.

Last November, the IMF Executive Board approved a $7.6 billion loan for Pakistan to support its program to stabilize and rebuild the economy while expanding its social safety net to protect the poor. The 23-month Stand-By loan to enable the government to implement a stabilization program that envisages a significant tightening of fiscal and monetary policies to bring down inflation and reduce the external current account deficit to more sustainable levels, had Washington’s blessings. The program seeks to address current macroeconomic imbalances while protecting the poor and preserving social stability in the South Asian country of 170 million people. The loan could, however, be a double-edged sword, forcing Islamabad to open up its ledger books to the IMF and, in effect, to Washington.

In addition, Pakistan is ravaged by power shortages. Violent disturbances broke out early this month when major cities suffered long power outages. As of Aug.17, US Special Envoy Holbrooke was in Islamabad. According to reports, Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin has told the local media that the US hopes to ease power shortages by renting electricity-generating plants over the next three to five years; but he also said Pakistan wants Washington’s backing in a longer-term upgrade and diversification of the country’s antiquated power sector. Shaukat Tarin said after talks on Monday with Holbrooke that Washington could assist Islamabad by providing financial guarantees to encourage investment in large-scale energy projects that would replace the temporary, rental plants. US trade promotion agencies like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank could provide financial backing for some of the projects.

While financial backing for a long-term resolution of power shortages in Pakistan would help President Zardari, the Pakistani military would also need support to keep Gen. Kiyani in the driver’s seat. Early this month, news came out that the 30-year-old frigate USS McInerney, put on the US Navy’s inactivation list last month, will fly the flag of Pakistan after its retirement next year. Once transferred to Pakistan, the ship will join Combined Task Force 151, the multinational force aimed at fighting piracy in the troubled waters of the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, Rear Adm. Steve Voetsch, director of the International Programs Office said, according to the Stars and Stripes news website. The cost of refurbishments onboard the McInerney, which includes anti-submarine missile defenses and other weapons systems, is set at $65 million, according to several national and international media reports. 

At the time of writing, US Centcom chief, Gen. David Petraeus arrived in Pakistan to discuss with his Pakistani counterpart expediting delivery of US equipment to Pakistan so it can expand its offensive against Taliban militants, US officials said. The Pakistani army has been battling militants in parts of the northwest for months, but a commander said on Tuesday the army was short of equipment, including Cobra attack helicopters, needed for a large-scale ground operation.

On Feb.23, the New York Times reported that more than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists were secretly working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas. The Americans are mostly Army Special Forces soldiers who are training Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops, providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics, the officials said.

They do not conduct combat operations, the officials added. They make up a secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command. It started last summer, with the support of Pakistan’s government and military, in an effort to root out al-Qaeda and Taliban operations that threaten American troops in Afghanistan and are increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged.

In addition, Washington may become more active in response to the Pakistani military’s insistence that it can effectively join the anti-al-Qaeda and anti-insurgent movements in the western sector only if its dispute with its main enemy, India, is attended to. This will raise hackles in India, another friend of the United States; but it definitely remains on Washington’s agenda, whether it is openly admitted or not.
Islamabad will have to recognize, and become reconciled to the fact, that none of this assistance from Washington will come without many strings attached. Pakistan will have to curb its anti-US forces and, in effect, offer a helping hand to get the al-Qaeda and such elements out of Pakistan.

The most likely scenario is that the al-Qaeda fighters will be pushed out to Central Asia and Xinjiang, from where they would not be able to harm American soldiers. Moreover, Islamabad will have to allow targetted drone strikes, launched from Pakistani soil, by Washington. There have also been reports that the United States will seek strikes deeper into Pakistan, if and when such strikes are required. 

The Afghan Policy Part

The Obama administration’s Afghan policy took a decisive turn last June with the dismissal of Gen. McKiernan and appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the US and NATO Commander of Afghanistan. One of the policies that Gen. McChrystal would like to implement is “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. However, given the background of Gen. McChrystal, that could be a tall order.

Gen. McChrystal was head of the Joint Special Operations Command, an outfit whose functional modalities are known to a handful. In Iraq, he was praised (and inadvertently “outed” as a commander) by President George W. Bush in June 2006 after  McChrystal’s special-ops team located and killed Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

McChrystal reportedly accompanied his men to the bombed-out hideaway in Baquba where al-Zarqawi lay, to help identify the body. He also played a major role in the post-surge period in Iraq in support of the then-Commander (now Centcom Chief) Gen. David Petraeus. While his success in eliminating individuals cannot be denied, McChrystal has done next to nothing to suggest that he would be an able commander who could win the “hearts and minds” of Afghan Pashtuns who consider both the US and NATO troops as foreign occupiers.

In order to win hearts and minds, Gen. McChrystal has suggested more interaction between Afghan and foreign troops and the locals. In fact, the concept of winning local hearts and minds to defeat an insurgency is not new. The British colonialists adopted this policy during the insurgency in Malaya, under British rule from 1948 to 1960. Although the conditions were entirely different in Vietnam, the United States initiated the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) initiative to bolster popular support for the South Vietnamese government against the Viet Cong. 

The CORDS program centered on assistance and development programs worth billions of dollars to the war-torn country and was directed by a government agency designed to aid underdeveloped countries - the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But the program was orchestrated by William Colby, who would later serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Included in CORDS was the controversial Phoenix program, which was designed to eliminate the rural Viet Cong infrastructure. Under Phoenix, which began in July 1968, South Vietnamese and American pacification intelligence operatives gathered information on suspected guerrillas and then worked to capture, convert or kill them. That program ended in 1972 after many deaths and little success, as the conclusion of the Vietnam War indicates.

The Afghan part of the Af-Pak policy will be a combination of search and destroy efforts (which failed miserably in Vietnam) and winning hearts and minds by using a program not too distant from the infamous CORDS. In order to go through with this approach, McChrystal will be seeking more troops and more firepower. That will surely lead to more deaths, but may not yield much success.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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