Obama’s strategy on Pakistan and Afghanistan

Success in Afghanistan lies through Pakistan

Brahma Chellaney

The Hindu newspaper, January 31, 2009


Barack Obama’s strategy on Pakistan and Afghanistan signals subtle shifts but no fundamental break with failed U.S. policies, thus raising the spectre of Indian security coming under greater pressure.


U.S. President Barack Obama has done well to appoint a special representative to the two interlinked countries that he says constitute “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism” — Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pak-Afghan belt has turned into a festering threat to international peace and security, and Richard Holbrooke has described his role as a “very difficult assignment.”

Mr. Obama is right to emphasise an integrated U.S. strategy towards those two countries. But even as he has embarked on some major steps, his strategy has yet to signal a meaningful integration. While pursuing a “surge” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan without clarity on the precise nature and length of the military mission, Mr. Obama is seeking to do, albeit in more subtle ways, what U.S. policy has traditionally done — prop up the Pakistani state.

Mr. Obama’s priority is to prevent Pakistan’s financial collapse while getting the Pakistani military to stop aiding Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Toward that end, Mr. Obama is set to more than triple non-military aid to a near-bankrupt Pakistan, already one of the three largest recipients of U.S. assistance, but with the military aid currently being three times larger than the economic aid.

Sending 30,000 more U.S. forces into Afghanistan is a losing strategy. In fact, Taliban attacks escalated last year, even as the number of NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan nearly doubled in the first half of 2008. The Soviet Union, with 100,000 troops, couldn’t pacify a country that historically has been “the graveyard of empires.” Yet, Mr. Obama has embarked on a near-doubling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to raise the combined U.S., NATO and allied force level there to 100,000.

The latest surge, oddly, is intended for a non-military mission — to strike a political deal with the Taliban from a position of strength. That is why Defence Secretary Robert Gates, scaling down America’s “too broad” objectives, told Congress this week that there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue ambitious goals in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama, ironically, has set out to do in Afghanistan what his predecessor did in Iraq, where a surge was used largely as a show of force to buy off Sunni leaders and local chieftains. Payoffs won’t create a stable, more peaceful Afghanistan, a tribal society without the literacy level and middle class of Iraq.

Mr. Obama needs to face up to a stark truth: the war in Afghanistan can only be won in Pakistan, whose military establishment fathered the Taliban and still provides sanctuary, intelligence and material support to that Islamist militia. In fact, the Pakistani military, through its infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, has exploited Afghanistan’s special status as the global poppy hub to fashion the instrument of narco-terrorism. The proceeds from the $300-million-a-year drug trade, routed through Pakistani territory, fund the Taliban and several Pakistan-based terror groups, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-i-Muhammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Maktab al-Khidamat and Hizb ul-Tahrir.

Pakistan is also Al Qaeda’s world headquarters. But while Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders operate out of mountain caves along Pakistan’s Afghan border, the presence of the Taliban and other Pakistani military-nurtured militants is more open on Pakistani soil. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry has put it bluntly, “a single country has become ground zero for the terrorist threat we face. The consensus among our intelligence agencies is that top Al Qaeda leaders are plotting their next attack from Pakistan, where the prevalence of religious extremists and nuclear weapons makes that country the central, crucial front in our struggle to protect America from terrorism.”

Narco to nuclear terrorism

Without its jihad culture being unravelled, there is a potent risk of Pakistan sliding from narco-terrorism to nuclear terrorism. Diminishing that risk demands that the Pakistani government be encouraged by the U.S. to assert civilian control over the military, intelligence and nuclear establishments. A.Q. Khan, who masterminded an international nuclear-smuggling ring for 16 long years with military connivance, including the provision of military transport aircraft, has still not been allowed to be questioned by international investigators.

To be sure, Mr. Obama identified Pakistan as the critical front 15 months ago when he advocated direct U.S. action there, including cross-border hot pursuit, if Pakistani security forces failed to play their role. But it will be difficult for him to reverse the long-standing U.S. policy of building up the Pakistani military as that country’s pivot. Since the time Pakistan was co-opted into the U.S.-led Cold War military alliances, successive U.S. administrations have valued the Pakistani military for promotion of regional interests, to the extent that the CIA helped train and fatten the ISI. The CIA-ISI ties remain cosy.

Tellingly, when the Pakistani government attempted last July to bring the ISI under civilian oversight, Washington did not come to its support, thus allowing the army to frustrate that move almost overnight. Instead, the U.S. has conveyed that the ISI is in the midst of being revamped, with its ranks being purged of jihadists — a story Washington has repeated almost every year or two in this decade. Similarly, Washington seems to prefer continued military control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal through the National Command Authority (NCA) because the general who heads it is vetted by the Pentagon and the CIA.

Still, some delicate shifts in U.S. policy are now under way. For one, the new administration, in keeping with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pledge during her Senate confirmation hearing, has set out to “condition” future U.S. military aid to concrete Pakistani steps to evict foreign fighters and shut down Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries. For another, the U.S. is to unveil a huge jump in non-military aid to Pakistan.

The administration is pushing for the early passage of the pending bill, the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, which Mr. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton had co-sponsored last July 2008 with eight other senators. The legislation is not a punitive but partnership-boosting measure to channel greater U.S. aid for Pakistan’s humanitarian and development needs. It also seeks to tie future U.S. military aid to a certification by the secretary of state to Congress that the Pakistani military was making “concerted efforts” to undermine Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But given the troop surge, the new land-transit deals with Russia and Central Asian states will not significantly cut America’s logistics dependence on Pakistan, which also provides intelligence to the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistani generals haughtily believe the U.S. needs them more than Pakistan needs America.

Indeed, it will be naïve to expect the Pakistani army and ISI to be brought to heel through a mere restructuring of the U.S. aid programme. For the Pakistani military, the Taliban and other militant groups remain not just useful surrogates, but force multipliers. Also, the U.S. conditions being introduced relate principally to Pakistani cooperation on the western frontier. That could leave the Pakistani military to continue its long-running asymmetric warfare against India through terror groups.

The key point is that there is no indication that Mr. Obama intends to abandon the long-standing U.S. pampering of the Pakistani military. While championing a huge increase in non-military assistance to Pakistan, he has signalled no intent to slash the generous military-aid flow other than to tie it to specific goals or better accountability. Put simply, greater U.S. largesse to help stabilise Pakistan is to run parallel to the surge-and-bribe endeavour in Afghanistan, with greenbacks the common lubricant.

Biden doubly wrong

Also, the new administration seems confused over whether Afghanistan or Pakistan ought to be its priority No. 1. Mr. Biden, an early supporter of the surge, has contended that the U.S. must focus on securing Afghanistan because “if Afghanistan fails, Pakistan could follow.” He is doubly wrong. With the war now seven years old, the time when a surge could work has already passed. The U.S. can never win in Afghanistan without dismantling the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Taliban. Indeed, the real problem is not at the Pakistani frontiers with Afghanistan (and India). Rather it is the sanctuaries deep inside Pakistan that continue to breed and export terrorism.

The U.S. military cannot directly achieve in Afghanistan what high-pressure American diplomacy can deliver on that front through Pakistan. As previous U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley pointed out days before Mr. Obama assumed the presidency, “You can’t really solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan.”

At a time when Pakistan’s solvency depends on continued U.S. aid flow and American-backed multilateral credit line, Washington has greater leverage than ever before. Without a fundamental shift in U.S. policy on Pakistan and recognition that the path to success in Afghanistan lies through Pakistan, Holbrooke’s “very difficult assignment” will end in failure, even as the surge deepens the military quagmire in Afghanistan.

(Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.)

© Copyright 2000 – 2009 The Hindu

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