Sense and sanity, so it seems, are slowly infusing into the policy making and debate on Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Six developments in recent weeks provide some encouragement (though each is not without its flaws):
1) The Saudi-sponsored talks between the Afghan Taliban and Karzai’s government
A smart strategy would be to:
- continue to engage the Afghan Taliban diplomatically while also weakening them militarily in a targeted fashion, thereby controlling the amount of leverage they have;
- link their joining the government and abandoning al-Qaeda to a phased Western withdrawal (perhaps replaced by peacekeepers from non-neighboring Muslim states);
- get the Afghan Taliban, via the Saudis, to commit to socio-economic development and education (including for girls);
- prevent the isolation of non-Pashtun Afghans (see below), who have bad blood with the Afghan Taliban and will feel threatened by Pashtun consolidation;
- make sure Afghanistan does not remain a bloody chessboard for power politics (the Iranians want the U.S. out but also do not want the Afghan Taliban back in power — they could end up supporting disgruntled Tajiks as spoilers)
- have Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Muslim states pay for reconstruction (after having funded radicalism abroad and megaprojects at home);
In short, the Taliban should be brought in to the larger political framework (perhaps a national unity government), formally empowering them, yet constraining them via the constitution, demilitarization, and political competition (e.g Karzai or another ‘moderate’ Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc.).
2) The halt of U.S. ground incursions inside Pakistan
The Predator attacks continue and have been, on the whole, a bit more precise than attacks from the summer. The U.S. ground attack inside Pakistan, which only resulted in the killing of civilians (no apology; no Western outrage), has not been repeated. Either the ground incursion was a one-time instrument used to pressure Rawalpindi-Islamabad to continue to act against militants (with targeted “leaks” creating the image that this was the ‘new’ policy) or the Pakistan Army’s threats to repel any foreign incursion worked to prevent future attacks.
3) The parliamentary briefing and debate in Islamabad on the war on terror
Critics rightly described the briefing as shallow, offering no new information or sense of a government strategy. But it ended on a decent note with the passing of a reasonable 14-point resolution. The document was vague, but broad enough to indicate that a comprehensive solution for militancy is necessary. The problem is that the Peoples Party-led government is all too ready to pat itself on the back for its minor, cosmetic achievements. [The worst thing about the small minded Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (who is a nice, well-intended person) is that he doesn't know what he doesn't know and that everyone else knows it.] The briefing should be the beginning, not the end, of regular parliamentary debate on and oversight over Pakistan’s war strategy.
4) The continuation of the Pakistan Army’s operations in Bajaur (despite Taliban calls for a ceasefire)
The Pakistani Taliban have made repeated calls for a truce in Bajaur, which have not been obliged. It seems to indicate their growing weakness there. The Pakistan military has not budged in Bajaur, which is seen as a test of whether it has the capacity and will to defeat militancy elsewhere. The fight in South Waziristan, for example, will far more difficult — the battle of battles.
5) The dents made in the consensus that the U.S./NATO should be in Afghanistan for an indefinite period
Fortunately, the U.S. presidential election is almost over and a real debate on the future of the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan can begin. Gen. David Petraeus’ review of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has already begun and he has the political and institutional legitimacy to give both the public and policymakers some tough medicine (see below). Diplomatic and military officials outside of the U.S. have already begun this process. They have come to terms with the fact that foreign occupations don’t last long in Afghanistan, a nation made of quicksand. Many NATO member states have finally looked at a map and realized the Afghanistan is a long way from the north Atlantic. It was a strategic blunder for the United States to get itself stuck in a landlocked Central Asian state, and antagonizing Iran, Russia, and Uzbekistan.
6) Gen. Petraeus assumes leadership over U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) next week
Petraeus will immediately visit Islamabad. By then, the new Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director Ahmed Shuja Pasha will have returned from his meetings in the United States with Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden. Petraeus is right when he says that the Pakistan-Afghanistan predicament shares some similarities with the Iraq conflict, but it is, on the whole, fairly distinct. And he is consulting with a wide variety of experts, including Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani American journalist/editor with close personal ties to the Pakistan army and author of a massive encyclopedic text on the institution. [Nawaz, brother of the late Chief of Army Staff Gen. Asif Nawaz, also met with the current COAS Gen. Ashfaq Kayani in August. And so he has interacted with, and has perhaps had an influence on, the two most important men in the fight to secure Pakistan and Afghanistan. Very interesting.]
Petraeus is seen as scholar-soldier who will do what’s right for America. His perceived success in Iraq provides him with the necessary standing to argue for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, providing cover for the next president.
With that said, the outlook for the region remains grim.
1) Pakistan is heading toward bankruptcy
It will likely avoid such a fate, but economic troubles will probably further political strife. Pakistan’s last resort, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), appears now to be its only resort. The PPP-led government has prepared for such a scenario in advance by removing fuel subsidies. But Pakistani consumers, facing a double whammy of more energy blackouts and higher bills, are increasingly taking to the streets to express their outrage. The protesters are just regular Pakistanis. Nusrat Javed, a leading Pakistani television commentator, has expressed his fear on multiple occasions that these leaderless rallies could eventually produce something near anarchy. The so-called ‘Friends of Pakistan’ should take this in mind as such a scenario becomes even more likely if the IMF requires the removal of wheat subsidies. The textile industry is also expected to shed tens of thousands of jobs, and that will have an impact not just on Karachi and Punjab industrial cities, but also on farmers who grow cotton and family members of migrant factory workers. The PPP will take a big political hit if it is forced, via an IMF mandate, to lay off public sector employees (or if the same occurs after privatization).
2) The U.S. and Pakistani reliance on air power is troubling
The Pakistani military campaign in Bajaur is marked by a heavy use of airpower (F-16s and helicopter gunships). The civilian casualties are mounting. Aside from the moral aspect, it is strategically disastrous. Pakistan not only needs the support of the local population, but also should be directly working to free them from the militants. Coalition forces in Afghanistan too over rely on air power. That, combined with heavily flawed intelligence, will lead to more dead babies and more Taliban recruits.
3) Karzai is up for re-election in 2009 and could rekindle ethnic strife
He is stuffing his cabinet with Pashtuns. The closer he gets to rapprochement with the Taliban, the more he’ll alienate the Northern Alliance/United Front. Afghanistan cannot revert to the ethnic warfare of the 1990s. But Karzai is increasingly stubborn as well as indecisive. His foreign benefactors are more inclined to slap him around via leaks to the New York Times when he complains about civilian casualties, than prod him to make sound decisions on governance.
4) Arming lashkars has dangerous mid to long term implications
The use of tribal lashkars (militias) is window dressing on what are largely operations by the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps. But one has to consider the broader implications of arming civilian militias. Forget about the “Awakening model” because the long term viability of this arrangement is tenuous. Post-conflict, is imperative that these individuals be disarmed, integrated into local police forces, and that their regions achieve a phased political integration into the rest of Pakistan.
5) Humanitarian assistance and civil reform plans for FATA are weak
There are over 150,000 internally displaced Pakistanis from the violence in Bajaur. The accommodations and provisions given to them are meager. If Pakistan is expected to “do more” militarily, then Western states need to do their part and provide immediate and sizable humanitarian assistance (financial and resources). IDPs are a natural externality of insurgent violence; and their numbers will multiply manifold if Pakistan extends its operations into other tribal areas. Winter is coming. Now is the time to act.
Pakistan needs to pay greater attention to the post-conflict law and order situation. It must be prepared to take up shop inside the tribal areas once conflict ceases. It should institute hybrid systems that embrace the traditional, Islamic, and civil systems of authority, governance, and adjudication.
6) Consequences of ‘doing more’ not fully thought out
When pressed in the Tribal Areas, militants have sought to expand the battlefield deeper into Pakistan. With their backs against the wall, will the militants try to hit the head point of the NATO supply lines, the multi-ethnic tinderbox known as Karachi? Roads connecting the Karachi Port to the national highways pass through the heart of Karachi. The potential civilian casualties are immense. Such attacks could fuel conflict between Pashtun groups and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), whose violent leader has called on youths to arm themselves.
Furthermore, with continued violence and economic deterioration, will Pakistan’s ‘haves’, including physicians and bankers, fortify and enclose their communities, or even flee to safer shores, such as Dubai and London?
Pakistanis should resist the Iraqization of their country. It requires not ‘doing more’ or doing less, but doing what is right for their country, as well as neighbors and friends.
A couple other points:
1) Pakistan needs to figure a way to reshape and limit its relations with Afghanistan
Hyper engagement in Afghanistan is a strategic blunder for any foreign nation. The Afghan tendency toward ingratitude and fickleness/intransigence/double dealing limits the utility of major involvement in that country. India’s present engagement with Afghanistan provides an interesting model. New Delhi rode into Kabul on the backs of the Western military presence and the Northern Alliance. Afghans have forgotten India’s support for the Soviet occupation, which killed countless numbers of innocent Afghans. Indian popularity is reportedly sizable, but India, of course, has the luxury of not having a border with Afghanistan. Pakistanis should understand Afghan resentment at being a playground for neighbors and other powers. But the Afghans themselves resort to external patronage to handle disputes with internal foes and neighbors.
2) Bagram is the new Guantanamo Bay/Abu Ghraib
Expect to hear some more stories on it. The Western press is oblivious to the case of Aafia Siddiqui, but it definitely has Pakistanis angered. Iftikhar Chaudhry is not being reinstated in part because he stood up against the illegal detention of Pakistanis by multiple security services.