Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
One of the labels being attached to President Barack Obama is that he is a committed incrementalist - an insult or a compliment depending on which side of the political fence you sit, or indeed whether you believe it to be true.
A couple of articles on U.S.-led strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan fill out what that could mean going into the new year.
Rory Stewart writes in The New York Review of Books that a measured, long-term strategy for Afghanistan could be more effective than either extremes of a drive for victory at all costs and precipitate withdrawal. Here’s an excerpt:
“Obama’s central – and revolutionary – claim is that our responsibility, our means, and our interests are finite in Afghanistan. As he says, “we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.” Instead of pursuing an Afghan policy for existential reasons—doing “whatever it takes” and “whatever it costs”—we should accept that there is a limit on what we can do. And we don’t have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.
In the absence of a coherent narrative about the failed Christmas Day attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the debate about how best to tackle al Qaeda and its Islamist allies has once again been thrown wide open.
Does it support those who want more military pressure to deprive al Qaeda of its sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or suggest a more diffuse threat from sympathisers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa? Should the United States open new fronts in emerging al Qaeda bases such as Yemen and Somalia, or focus instead on the fact that the attempted airline attack did not succeed, suggesting al Qaeda’s ability to conduct mass-casualty assaults on U.S. territory has already been severely degraded in the years since 9/11?
For the first time in many months, the future of Pakistan is being determined not in the fight against Islamist militants, but within its institutions — its judiciary, its political parties, its government and its military. Last week’s decision by the Supreme Court to strike down a 2007 amnesty given to politicians and bureaucrats has provided Pakistan with a rare opportunity to remodel itself as a civilian democracy based on the rule of law. But the way forward is so fraught with difficulties that assessments of its chances of success are at best sober, at worst ominous.
The court decision to strike down the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) affects some 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats on a list of those who had been covered by the amnesty, including the defence and interior ministers. President Asif Ali Zardari had also been covered by the amnesty, but remains protected by presidential immunity. Such was the upheaval created by the ruling that foreign exchange markets were briefly shaken last week by unfounded rumours of a military coup. The real impact is likely to be more slow-burning.
A Supreme Court ruling striking down an amnesty given to politicians and officials by former president Pervez Musharraf has created havoc in Pakistani politics. Among those affected on a list of 8,000 politicians and bureaucrats who were protected by the amnesty are the interior and defence ministers, who are now no longer allowed to leave the country until they clear their names in court.
“Pakistan’s interior minister today found himself in the unusual position of being asked to bar himself from leaving the country,” wrote Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
One of the more controversial arguments doing the rounds is the question of whether you can compare Pakistan’s Islamist militants to Maoist insurgents in India. Both claim to champion the cause of social justice and have been able to exploit local grievances against poor governance to win support, and both use violence against the state to try to achieve their aims.
The differences are obvious: the Islamist militants come from the religious right; the Maoists from the far-left. In Pakistan, the militants have become powerful enough to strike at the heart of the country’s major cities. In India, the Maoists remain largely confined to the country’s interiors, although their influence is spreading through large parts of its rural hinterland.
In the vast swirl of debate about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is worth taking the time to read this piece in the Small Wars Journal by Michael Yon about the looming battle for Kandahar and the central importance of the Arghandab River Valley (pdf document).
Just as “a tiger doesn’t need to completely understand the jungle to survive, navigate, and then dominate”, Yon argues, you don’t have to master the full geographical and historical complexity of the Afghan war to grasp the importance of the Arghandab River Valley in securing Kandahar — a battle he suggests will be crucial in 2010.
The arrest of five young Americans in Pakistan who according to Pakistani officials wanted to go to fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan has, perhaps predictably, increased fears of radicalisation within parts of the United States own Muslim community.
It follows the arrest in Chicago of David Headley, who police say scouted out targets for last year’s attack on Mumbai, and discussed with Pakistan-based militant groups plans for attacks in Denmark and India; and also comes after last month’s Fort Hood shooting in which 13 people died.
When President Barack Obama suggested in Beijing last month that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indeed to “all of South Asia”, much of the attention was diverted to India, where the media saw it as inviting unwarranted Chinese interference in the region.
But what about asking a different question? Can China help stabilise the region?
In openDemocracy, Paul Rogers writes that one of the great mistakes of the media is that it tends to assume the only actors in the campaign against Islamist militants are governments, with al Qaeda and the Taliban merely passive players.
“Beyond the details of what the Taliban and its allies decide, it is important to note that most analysis of Barack Obama’s strategy published in the western media is severely constrained by its selective perspective. There is a pervasive assumption – even now, after eight years of war – that the insurgents are mere “recipients” of external policy changes: reactive but not themselves proactive,” he writes.