President Barack Obama has called his new AfPak initiative, which he unveiled on March 27, 2009, a stronger, smarter, and comprehensive strategy that aims to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The White Paper brought out three major objectives: removal of al Qaeda’s sanctuary; helping to create an effective democratic government in Pakistan and a self-reliant Afghanistan. The US fear remains that al Qaeda is still actively planning attacks on the US homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen recently noted that it is the Afghan-Pakistan border region that is the ‘site of planning for the next attack’ on the United States. The White House claims that its strategy is well-thought out and well-resourced, although there is no estimate available as to how much it would cost the US or its other allies.
Despite pronouncements that al Qaeda/ Taliban is not the problem of the US alone, but an international problem, it appears that the US has a limited objective – ensuring that the Taliban/ al Qaeda do not use the Pakistan-Afghan territory to carry out terrorism against the US. This could be seen as a long-term objective and in the meantime, the US has to look at a series of short-term issues which can ensure that long-term gain. Is the US really interested in installing a civilian government or undertake nation-building activities in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The US has emphasised that its relationship with Pakistan is “grounded in support for Pakistan’s democratic institutions and the Pakistan people.” Is that valid for the US that there is a democratic government in Pakistan. The US has dealt with Pakistan military dictators for a long time in the past and has found it convenient to deal with the military leadership than the civilian government who is not control of the army and the ISI. Second, what is the guarantee that the civilian leadership in Pakistan will ensure their goal of eliminating terrorism or that they will not be party sponsoring or supporting terrorism? Benazir Bhutto is a case in point.
Under the new strategy, the US plans to deploy an additional 17,000 troops and another 4,000 that would be essentially for training purposes. These forces are meant to fight Taliban in the south and the east, as also improve the capacity of Afghan forces to go after the terrorists. Military aid for Pakistan would go into training as well as for buying helicopters, night vision equipments and other weapon system needed to fight insurgency in the tribal areas. There is also a provision for non-military aid of $ 1.5bn each year for the next five years to undertake civilian activities. Unless monitored in an effective manner, such funding will find its way into anything and everything other than civilian/ development programmes.
The US spending is supposed to be judged against a set of benchmarks. These benchmarks could be improvements in Afghanistan, better cooperation from Pakistan, and reduced violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this regard, there is funding for a strong Inspector General at the State Department and USAID, who will oversee the spending to ensure accountable spending and avoid wasteful expenditure.
While this is all well and good, there is unease about the new policy. A recent RAND study found that only 7% of terrorist organisations end their activities because they are militarily defeated; the majority will end terror when they become part of a political process. While Obama was correct in saying that terrorism cannot be defeated militarily, the question is how the US or Afghanistan or Pakistan can ensure that these forces are brought into a political process.
Reconciliation with former enemies, the so-called non-violent Taliban, is a possibility that the US is looking at. The Hague Conference brought out clearly that the US will offer an “honourable” form of reconciliation to those Taliban fighters who renounce violence in Afghanistan as part of a revamped strategy to tackle the deepening insurgency. This makes a distinction between those who joined Taliban out of desperation and those who joined out of conviction. The White Paper made a note of exploiting differences among the insurgents “to divide Taliban’s true believers from less committed fighters.” Dennis Blair, now Director of National Intelligence, has indicated something similar. He said that roughly 2/3rd of Taliban are primarily concerned with regional issues and hence can be defeated or co-opted by the Karzai government. This can boost its ability to provide security and services beyond Kabul. But the remaining 1/3rd of the group is under the leadership of Mullah Omar and will be a tough case, because they want power in Afghanistan.
Splitting the Taliban is seen as a tactic in the overall US strategy of defeating Taliban. One way of doing this is to exploit “fractures” or fissures within the Taliban. The US, by working with other Afghans, hopes to assimilate Taliban foot soldiers into the political system. Obama in his interview to NYT suggested that he might do something similar to what was had done in Iraq – peace agreements with Sunni militias in Iraq. However, the situation is much more complex in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Splitting the Taliban is not easy. Not only is doing deals with Taliban more complex but could prove destabilising for Afghanistan. Firstly, as some analysts have brought out, unlike in Iraq, there is a sovereign government in Afghanistan and if at all any deal is done, it should be done by the Karzai government and not the US. This could otherwise prove to be what India did in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Second, given that Taliban controls the entire southern belt of Afghanistan, it appears to be on the winning side and no Taliban will be willing to enter into a deal with Karzai or the US at this time. And in the case of Afghanistan, it has been known that tribal groups shift their allegiance depending which side is winning. Third, a deal with Afghan Taliban may not bring much positive results as long as effective command & control comes from Pakistan. In the last few years, when Pakistan has done peace agreements with Taliban, it has been after failure on the part of Pakistan army. Thus, the Taliban has always gained greater control. There is no reason why the results should be different this time. Lastly, the US risks making the same mistake as it did during the 1980s, pumping money to militia groups which, over a period of time, become dangerous and out of control.
Instead of doing deals with these militia groups and Taliban, it might be prudent for the US to strike a deal with Iran, replacing US reliance on Pakistan. The US would be able to use the Iranian port of Chabahar and the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway, which links up to the ring road to Kandahar and Kabul.
Lack of good intelligence is seen as another serious issue. In this regard, Dennis Blair stated that lack of solid intelligence and understanding of Afghanistan at the level of intelligence agencies is be a serious flaw. This intelligence imbalance would hamper Obama Administration’s efforts, especially as it shifts from one theatre to another.
The other issue is whether the Obama administration, given the economic difficulties, will be able to sustain the extended commitments and for how long.
Lastly, should the US be engaged in such activities and is there ground support for the US to engage in such activities? In fact, it has been the presence of US and other foreign troops that has created strong resentment and the resultant growth of radical militia groups in Pakistan.
The new strategy emphasises more on training and thereby increasing the size as well as strengthening of the Afghan Security Forces – the Afghan Army and Police. Every American unit will be partnered with an Afghan unit; this will accelerate as well as strengthen the process of creating a more effective Afghan force (Army of 134,000 and Police of 82,000) by 2011. This is being complimented with civilian activities in fighting corruption, narcotics trade that give way to criminality and funding of insurgency. Besides interdiction, for which Iran has agreed to cooperate, the US has to think of other programmes like crop substitution and alternative livelihood programmes.
While Obama recognises that the US alone will not be able to achieve all these objectives, it is important that the US engages Iran, Russia, China, Japan and India in this regard. Iran has come on board partially, extending help in tackling the huge opium trade in the region, while emphasising its opposition to US and other foreign troops there. Russian position has been that there is a need to combine anti-terror measures with socio-economic measures to rebuild Afghanistan. Russia has expressed its willingness to participate in this effort.
How different is Obama strategy from the strategy followed over the last eight years? Increasing the civilian component and nation-building activity is a new element. Even with such addition, is it significantly different? Despite being a strong critic of Bush’s policies, Obama’s AfPak strategy appears to be a repeat of what President Bush had done in Iraq.
However, be it old or new, what is of concern is the US’ short-sighted policies, be it vis a vis terrorism or WMD proliferation. The US sidelines some of these important goals for minor, but quicker gains vis a vis certain other national security objectives. The way WMD proliferation was sacrificed for the sake of Pakistan’s support against the Soviets in the 1980s is a classic case. This short-sightedness is visible even now - in not going after other terror groups like LeT, JeM, which will in the future be critical threats to US security. Until and unless the US is attacked, they do not see the danger some terrorist groups pose. These approaches have a significant impact on other important bilateral relationships.
One case in point is Indo-US counter-terrorism cooperation. What constitutes terrorism for India has not been considered terrorism by the US. India has been the victim of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan in Kashmir and elsewhere in the north-east, whereas the US looks at Pakistan as a necessary link to prosecute the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. The US has adopted very short-term approach in dealing with these issues and it will be a folly if India follows the US line. The US needs to formulate long-term strategies which ensure that American policies do not create the conditions that directly or indirectly encourage terrorism. Overlooking terrorism in some parts of the world because it inconveniences other American interests, or pursuing the war on terrorism in an insensitive manner can create problems in the long run.
Matters have become further complicated due to the Indo-Pakistan issues and Pakistan’s continued reliance on cross-border terrorism as state policy. Pakistan had also believed that it can support Kashmiri insurgents against India but that they would not turn against other countries or even Pakistan. Today, Pakistan is faced with this monster and the government appears to be not in full control of the situation. Additionally, Pakistan always made a distinction between terrorism directed against India and terrorism against the US and other western nations. Pakistan was prudent enough to make sure that several of the terrorist groups under its control did not act against US interests, but the terrorist groups grew under the leadership of Al Qaeda and did not appreciate the need to take orders from Pakistan anymore. The September 11 terrorist attacks in the US was one such case. Hence, be it for India or the US, there has to be a clear recognition that Pakistan remains the culprit. And accordingly, India and the US have to take appropriate actions.
Lastly, while there is acknowledgment that Pakistan is the root cause, the calls for constructive diplomacy between India and Pakistan suggests that the Obama administration is still of the view that Kashmir issue is key and resolution of the Kashmir problem will let Pakistan cooperate with the US on war on terror. That explains the Obama Administration’s keenness to mediate and seek a solution to the Kashmir problem. Obama’s comments during interviews to Time magazine in October and December 2008 and the reported consideration (earlier) of former President Bill Clinton as a special envoy on Kashmir had created major stir in the Indian political and policy circles. Obama in his interview said, “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they (Pakistan) can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.” Some analysts in India have tended to believe that a Kashmir-specific pro-active policy need not necessarily be bad, given Obama’s pro-India statements.
The issue, however, is complicated as Obama believes that solving Kashmir as a pre-requisite for ensuring Pakistan’s support in the war on terror against Taliban and al Qaeda. Linking Afghanistan to the resolution of Kashmir dispute, as brought out in Obama’s interview to Time magazine, is problematic. Such an inclination of linking Afghanistan’s security with terrorism in Kashmir could prove dangerous and India needs to maintain a close watch. The US must retain its attention on the real problem – Pakistan, instead of getting diverted into Kashmir.