Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
In all the noise about the war in Afghanistan over the last week, including the WikiLeaks uproar and a spat between Pakistan and Britain over remarks made by Prime Minister David Cameron about Pakistan’s links to Islamist militancy, one piece of news carries real significance.
On Friday, five Taliban members were struck off a U.N. Security Council list of militants subject to sanctions in a move designed to smooth the way for reconciliation talks with insurgents. Among those, two of the five were dead. The other three - Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad Awrang, a former Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad before 9/11, and Abdul Satar Paktin – are no longer subject to the asset freeze and travel ban imposed on those on the list.
To get a sense of quite how significant a change this is, consider how Mullah Zaeef – who now lives in Kabul and says he is no longer an active member of the movement – describes his treatment when he was arrested in Pakistan in early 2002, according to his book “My Life with the Taliban“. The Pakistani official who arrested him told him: “Your Excellency, you are no longer an Excellency! America is a superpower. Did you not know that? No one can defeat it, nor can they negotiate with it. America wants to question you and we are here to hand you over to the USA.”
Turned over to the Americans near Peshawar after being driven there from Islamabad, he says he was attacked and his clothes ripped with knives. “The Pakistani soldiers were all staring as the Americans hit me and tore the remaining clothes off my body. Eventually I was completely naked, and the Pakistani soldiers — the defenders of the Holy Koran — shamelessly watched me with smiles on their faces, saluting this disgraceful action of the Americans.”
I’ve been resisting diving into the WikiLeaks controversy, in part because the information contained in the documents – including allegations of Pakistani complicity with the Taliban - is not new. Yet at the same time you can’t entirely dismiss as old news something which has generated such a media feeding frenzy. So here are a few pointers to add to the discussion.
U.S. POLICY TOWARDS PAKISTAN
On the likely implications (or non-implications) for U.S. policy towards Pakistan, go back to 2009, and this piece in the National Interest by Bruce Riedel who conducted the first review of Afghan strategy for President Barack Obama. Having assessed all the evidence, including well-known American misgivings about the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, he concluded that Washington had no option but to stay the course in trying to build a long-term partnership with Pakistan.
Over the past few weeks there has been political brouhaha in Pakistan – played out daily on the nation’s front pages and interview programs — as dozens of federal and provincial lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees. The investigation of office-holders’ university qualifications has turned into a white-hot, nationwide controversy, with the Supreme Court ordering the Election Commission to verify the academic qualifications of 1,065 of the country’s 1,170 members of provincial and national assemblies. So far 46 lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees, and many more are under investigation. There has been speculation that if too many lawmakers are disqualified for holding fake degrees the country may have to midterm elections.
The requirement for academic qualification is rooted in a controversial law imposed by the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2002, which made a bachelor’s degree, or equivalent, mandatory for those running for office. While the law was justified by Musharraf as a move intended to draw in more qualified lawmakers, it was criticized as a ploy to disqualify scores of political opponents, many of whom were veterans of Pakistan’s feudal and tribal political system but lacked the necessary qualifications. The law was also seen as un-democratic in country with almost half the population illiterate, barring the great majority of the population from running for office. Echoing this view, the Supreme Court struck down the law in April 2008. However, some politicians had already acquired fake degrees to run for the February 2008 elections, and their fraudulent degrees have now become a heated issue.
Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is to be given a a three-year extension to his term of office to maintain continuity in the country’s battle against Islamist militants.
Kayani, arguably Pakistan’s most powerful man, had been due to retire in November. His future had been the subject of intense speculation for months, with opinion divided between the those who argued he should be given an extension for the sake of continuity, and those who said that Pakistan needed to build its institutions rather than rely on individuals – as it had done with powerful army rulers in the past.
Last week’s suicide bombing of a mosque in Zahedan, capital of the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan, is another reminder of how far two of the United States’ main foreign policy challenges – its row with Iran over its nuclear programme, and its policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – are intertwined.
A senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said on Saturday that the United States would face “fall out” from the bomb attack which it blamed on the Jundollah Sunni Muslim rebel group - a militant group which Iran says is backed by Washington and operates from Baluchistan province in neighbouring Pakistan. Massoud Jazayeri, deputy head of the dominant ideological wing of Iran’s armed forces, did not specify what he meant by fall-out from the bombing, which killed 28 people and which the United States has condemned.
Richard Haass, president at the Council on Foreign Relations, has become the latest to urge the United States to change course in Afghanistan and to seek a political settlement to try to bring an end to the war.
“The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better,” he writes in an article in Newsweek.
Hopes of progress were low when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met in Islamabad last week and the two sides lived up to expectations, disagreeing on how to move their relationship forward and blaming each other for souring the mood.
Pakistan took exception to the timing of remarks by the Indian Home Secretary on the eve of the talks accusing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency of involvement in the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. India objected to comments made by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi comparing those remarks to anti-India speeches given by Hafez Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for Mumbai. Qureshi complained his counterpart repeatedly took instructions from Delhi during their talks, an accusation that Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna denied.
Perhaps one of the most telling features on the media commentary ahead of a meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in Islamabad this week is the lack of it. Expectations could hardly be lower.
Part of that is the nature of the actors involved. In India, policy towards Pakistan is set by the prime minister’s office, not the foreign ministry. So External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is not in a position to deliver the kind of breakthrough that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh achieved at a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani when both agreed at a meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan in April to try to find a way back into talks broken off by the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. In Pakistan, the army retains a tight grip on foreign and security policy, limiting in turn the kind of concessions that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi might make.
In the highly charged debate about Afghanistan, one of the more common features is the straw man fallacy - in which you deliberately misrepresent your opponent’s position in order to discredit it. One of the least common is a definition of terms and timing – thereby making the straw man attack even easier. So before a round-up of where things stand on prospects for a settlement, here are some caveats on what it does not involve.
First, as Andrew Exum highlights here, few are talking about a helicopters-on-the-rooftops of Kabul-style, complete U.S. withdrawal come July 2011, the deadline fixed by President Barack Obama for starting to draw down U.S. troops. Second, few believe the war will end in an outright victory; but rather in a negotiated settlement, including with the Taliban. Third, when people talk about negotiating, they are not suggesting Taliban leaders are suddenly about to lay down arms and come to the table (it is just not the sort of thing you do when your names figure on the most-wanted list.) Beyond those caveats, what you do have is a set of questions about the likely influences that will define the timings and terms of a settlement.
Another three people have been killed in Kashmir in the biggest anti-India demonstrations in two years, bringing the death toll to at least 14 in the last three weeks. You can see some video of the protests in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar here – please watch it and remember that only a few years ago peace had returned to the streets of Srinagar after more than a decade of violence.
While Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has suggested the violence is being whipped up by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, our correspondent in Srinagar says that many local Kashmiris believe the protests are largely spontaneous.