Saturday, May 15, 2010
Forget AfPak, the problem is PakPak
You can almost hear the screw turn, thread by thread. A day after stating “there would be very severe consequences” if a successful attack was traced back to Pakistan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said what everyone knows. She has said that “some Pakistani officials were more informed about the al Qaeda and the Taliban than they let on.”
A year after the US launched its AfPak strategy, it is becoming clear that the real issue is PakPak. It took an attack on CONUS (Continental United States), even though a botched one, to convince the Obama Administration of the dangers of relying too much on Pakistani good intentions to fight the war against the Islamist radicals.
As a general rule, it is relatively much easier to enter into a war, than to be able to figure out its course, or end. Something of the sort is now happening in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as the second American coming there increases in intensity. For the past couple of months we have heard a great deal about the fickleness of the US and the West who announced their date of withdrawal even before they launched their campaign. We heard, too, of the brilliance of the Pakistani generals who were managing to extract considerable rent from the Americans, even while undermining them and planning their own takeover of Afghanistan after the announced withdrawal.
While it is a good idea to generally have an exit strategy in place before you go into a hornet’s nest, it is a better one to have a clearer idea of your goals. The US has an exit date in mind, but its goals appear amorphous. Are they to stabilise or democratise Afghanistan, Pakistan? Or, is it to wipe out the al Qaeda, including its two iconic leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri? Meanwhile Pakistani military action in South Waziristan, American drone strikes in North Waziristan, the ongoing battle in Afghanistan are rapidly changing the facts on the ground.
Many of these issues come to mind when we are confronted by one of those little occurrences that help the larger shift of a paradigm. The event was the failed bombing of Times Square. By itself, it did not amount to much and it is unlikely that the combination of gas canisters, cans of petrol, fireworks and fertiliser (of the wrong kind) would touch off anything equivalent of the Nine-Eleven event. But what it has done is to concentrate minds in Washington.
The logic for the Administration’s position was underscored by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last Friday. Stating that Pakistan was doing the best it can, he added, “You also have to realise that, with their military operations in the West, they've started to be pretty thinly stretched themselves, as well as taking a substantial number of casualties.”
The problem for Gates and his generals is that there is another factor that has gained salience in the equation—the drone strikes in North Waziristan where the militants are now concentrated. The US has so far carried out 34 strikes in Pakistan, all in North Waziristan. This can be compared to the 53 strikes in 2009 and 36 strikes in 2008. Allegations that they cause a great deal of collateral casualties cannot be verified on the ground, but one thing is clear, they are far more accurate than the air strikes by the Pakistan Air Force. What they have managed to do is to severely constrain the militants operating in the region, particularly their ability to train new recruits. The reaction of the TTP has been to try and respond to them by attacks in the US using people like Shahzad, or Najibullah Zazi, an American-Afghan who was arrested last September for a failed attempt to bomb the New York subway system. The third major recruit of the system which is run out of North Waziristan is David Coleman Headley who was used for reconnaissance for the Mumbai attack.
The “turning” of Americans of Pakistani origins is clearly worrying the US. In addition to these, there are five Pakistani-Americans in jail in Pakistan. They were en route to Waziristan when they were caught. There are currently some 600,000 or so Pakistani Americans in the US. They may be well-off and comfortable as compared to the country they come from, but they cannot remain unaffected by the radical anti-Americanism of the Pakistani people and the message of radical Islam brought to them by itinerant preachers and satellite TV.
For historical reasons, Pakistan lies at the heart of darkness. As if the djinns who aided its creation were not enough, they got Abu Ala Maududi and the Jamaat-e-Islami. But the real shift from Jinnah’s secularist vision came with the American-sponsored jehad that gave birth to the Taliban and General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation drive. Running like a thread through all this was a profound sense of self-hatred manifested by the detestation of India, the country from which Pakistan had been created. Even if north-west Pakistan had not been the geographical epicentre of the anti-Soviet jehad, there was enough in its history to infect it with the Islamic radicalism that came from Saudi Arabia
The dilemma for the Americans is that even while this tide of radicalism shows signs of receding in countries like Indonesia, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia, it is still to reach its peak in Pakistan. The Americans are pouring the big bucks into the country—indeed, on the day Faisal was indicted in New York, the US Embassy in Islamabad released $468 million of coalition support funds that reimburse Pakistan for its counter-insurgency efforts.
No matter what the electoral compulsions of the Obama Administration are, the US has no option but to go forward at this juncture. It is now clear to the US that Pakistan is the more important front. That is where the war against radical Islam must be fought and won. The prognosis there does not look too good. But this could change. Crucial to this would be the decision of the generals in Rawalpindi.
Earlier this year, the Pakistan Army declared it had ended its operations in South Waziristan and did not contemplate going to its northern half. But this was more wishful thinking than an authoritative statement. After years of hoping to ride out the storm by making deals with the militants, the Army was forced to go into Swat, then South Waziristan and Bajaur agency. There is every chance that it will go into North Waziristan as well.
The situation on the battle ground will drive the policy, not some subtle plans of the ISI. On the ground, there is today a new amalgam of militants—the TTP, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, HuJI and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen radicals, the Afghans in the form of the Haqqani network, the Chechens and, above all the Al Qaeda.
There are some in the Pakistan Army who recognise that it is no longer possible to conduct a policy of attacking some militants and leaving the others alone. As patriots, many officers are deeply conflicted because they can see the threat that the militants there pose to Pakistan itself. The cockiness that characterised the initial response to the challenge is giving way to a sense of realism which tells them that the restoration of the Taliban in Kabul could actually be a bigger threat to Islamabad, rather than India, the US or Central Asia. The difference between success and failure lies in whether they can halt the momentum of the past and persuade their colleagues to reverse course.
This piece appeared in Mail Today May 13, 2010