Pakistan and Afghanistan:how do al Qaeda and the Taliban respond?

December 7, 2009

peshawar twoIn 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.  

“This is nonsense – and dangerous nonsense. It would be far wiser to assume that these militias have people who are every bit as intelligent and professional in their thinking and planning as their western counterparts. They have had three months to think through the Obama leadership’s policy-development process; and much of this thinking will be about how the US changes affect their own plans – not how they will respond to the United States. Thus they may have very clear intentions for the next three to five years that are embedded in detailed military planning; and what is now happening on their side will involve adjustment of these plans in the light of the great rethink across the Atlantic.”

So how will al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamist groups respond?

As discussed before in openDemocracy, and highlighted on this blog more than a year ago, the Taliban has been pretty good at studying the lessons of history, including taking inspiration from the Vietnamese war commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, who successfully employed guerrilla tactics against the French before crushing them in the battle of Dien Bien Phu  in 1954.

It is reasonable to assume they have also studied the spillover of the U.S. war in Vietnam into Cambodia where the United States, reluctant to send in its ground troops, resorted to special ops and bombing campaigns to choke off the Vietcong’s supply routes  – rather as Pakistan now fears the Afghan campaign will spill into its territory as Washington tries to eradicate Afghan Taliban leaders and bases there. The ensuing chaos paved the way for the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.

british soldier It would be a step too far to suggest that the Afghan Taliban and their allies are set on taking over Pakistan. As it is, there is still a fierce debate on how far they  are primarily Afghan nationalists who would settle for a return to power in Afghanistan and how far they have bought into al Qaeda’s global Islamist agenda.

But it is still worth asking whether Afghanistan or Pakistan are the real targets of Islamist militants.  And in that context, wehther they will try to provoke a crisis in Pakistan. Will they, as discussed in this analysis, try to start a war between India and Pakistan to so destabilise the country that they would have a chance of seizing power and the nuclear weapons?

For now we don’t know. Unlike Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan discussed ad nauseum in the media, the gameplan of the Islamist militants is much more obscure.  They will be studying both the strategy and the lessons of history and may not choose the obvious options. About the best you can say, is that they are likely to surprise us.

(Postscript:  The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies has put up a summary of its Track Two talks in Bangkok in October (pdf document).  A useful read for anyone interested in the details of the India-Pakistan relationship.)

(Photos: bombing in Peshawar; British soldier in Afghanistan)

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