Afghanistan and Pakistan: is it time to ditch “AfPak”?

October 12, 2009

One of the arguments frequently put forward for sending more western troops to Afghanistan is that western failure there will destabilise Pakistan.

Very roughly summarised, this 21st century version of the domino theory suggests that a victory for Islamist militants in Afghanistan would so embolden them that they might then overrun Pakistan – a far more dangerous proposition given its nuclear weapons.

A slightly different but related argument is that the United States needs to show resolve in Afghanistan to convince Pakistan of its commitment to the region and encourage the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to turn against Islamist militants it once cultivated as ”strategic assets” to be used against its much bigger neighbour India.

“Many in Pakistan have always believed the Americans are not really serious about Afghanistan. They recall that the U.S. supported Pakistan and the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s only to abandon both once the Soviets left,” writes Bruce Riedel at Brookings in a follow-up to this weekend’s attack on the Pakistan Army headquarters.

If President Barack Obama ”shows resolve in Afghanistan, Pakistanis won’t love us, but they will believe we are serious and determined to stay until a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan emerges,” he writes. “If it appears the United States cannot make up its mind about what to do, then Pakistanis will say I told you so and make their own accommodations.”

Yet the assault on army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi raises several questions both about the domino theory and argument about the United States needing to show resolve in Afghanistan.

First, does the Pakistan Army still need to be convinced of the dangers from Islamist militants after its commandos, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “were forced to storm their own headquarters” to release hostages seized in an attack on the most powerful institution in the country?

Second, the attack - which in turn raised jitters about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons - appeared to have nothing to do with the main Afghan Taliban group fighting western forces in Afghanistan – the so-called Quetta shura led by Mullah Omar, which according to Washington is based in  Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.   

As discussed in this post and in this analysis, the gunmen involved in the Rawalpindi raid came from a nexus of militant groups linking up the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), based in South Waziristan in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and organisations which have taken deep root in the country’s heartland Punjab province – including sectarian groups and those originally set up to fight India in Kashmir.

The Guardian quotes Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as saying that five of the attackers came from Punjab while the other five were from South Waziristan. The ringleader, he said, was a Punjabi, while the operation was ordered from South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but said it was carried out by its Punjab unit.

So if the threat to Pakistan comes not from the Afghan Taliban but from the Pakistani Taliban and the many militant organisations based in Punjab, can you still cite the need to stabilise Pakistan as a justification for sending more troops to Afghanistan?

There may be other arguments for sending more troops to Afghanistan, among them to prevent it again becoming a base for al Qaeda. As Reuters correspondent William Maclean writes here, analysts are still divided on whether the Afghan Taliban can be prised away from al Qaeda.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to Kabul argues in this interview with India’s Business Standard that they can. “First of all, we have to understand that the Taliban and the al Qaeda have totally different targets; and also that the Afghan Taliban are different from the Pakistan Taliban and there is evidence of this,” he says. ”We can do business with the Taliban and in order to bring back some normalcy in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the U.S. will have to do business. But we need to have some benchmarks for the conduct of the Taliban government before we do that.”

And in this article in the Washington Post, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, suggests looking anew at the Afghan Taliban.

“Change the media theme from attacking the Taliban and calling them the terrorists to concentrating on al Qaeda and ‘foreign terrorists’,” he writes. ”By removing the stigma of terrorism from the Taliban, you can pursue meaningful negotiations with them. Mohammad Omar has never enjoyed the full support of Pashtuns. He is a lowly figure in tribal terms, and he is blamed by many of them for the calamity that has befallen Afghanistan. Reaching out to tribal leaders is what will move negotiations.”

Those are big questions about Afghanistan, but are they the same questions as those now being asked about Pakistan? Or is it time to start looking at the two countries separately again, albeit within a broad regional context that acknowledges the very complex links between different Islamist militant groups?

The ”AfPak” label has never been popular in the region itself. Is it time to ditch it?

(Reuters file photos: Nuristan in Afghanistan; U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and Pakistani soldiers in the border areas)

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