After Kabul attack, pressure remains on Pakistan

September 14, 2011

That the situation is bad in Afghanistan is obvious. Quite how bad is open to debate following the 20-hour attack by insurgents on Kabul, though former Indian intelligence chief B. Raman put it rather succinctly on his Twitter feed @SORBONNE75. “If one considers totality of picture—anti-terror, anti-insurgency—- US far from prevailing in Afghanistan. US troops after 10 yrs in same position as Soviet troops after 8 yrs were in 1987—victory increasingly elusive.”

Yet as has been the case for years, the United States has few good options in Afghanistan. Pulling out altogether would not only leave Afghanistan dealing with a bitter civil war but could further destabilise Pakistan.  Staying runs the risk of testing the patience not just of western public opinion but also of Afghans, who as the Afghanistan Analysts Network said, could come to see foreign forces as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  ”The possible perception among Afghan residents that the presence of foreigners is a catalyst for attacks may lead to a growing conclusion that the problems related to their presence far outweigh the benefits,” it said. In the meantime, talks with the Afghan Taliban in order to try to reach a political settlement  appear to be going nowhere and are unlikely to become any easier after the attack on Kabul.

Early indications are that the United States is determined to stay the course – U.S. ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker played down the attack - and concentrate on  negotiating an agreement allowing it to keep troops in Afghanistan well beyond the 2014 deadline it has set for handing over security to Afghan forces.

Crocker also blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network for the attack while  U.S. General John Allen, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said the United States would continue to try to convince Pakistan to rein in the militant group.

In short, business as usual and indeed business as it has been for years, with the United States trying more or less to hold its ground in Afghanistan, while struggling to convince the Pakistan army to act against the militant proxies it once nurtured to counter India. That pressure is likely to be accompanied by a continued or intensified campaign of drone bomb attacks on militant targets in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.

On the Pakistan side, there is as yet no obvious sign of a change of stance.  After a bitter fall-out following the raid by U.S. forces who found and killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, the United States and Pakistan have begun working together again – at least in targetting al Qaeda. The Pakistan army made a point of stressing “the intimate cooperation between Pakistan and United States intelligence agencies”  after the arrest in Quetta earlier this month of al Qaeda operative Younis al Mauritani.

But that cooperation does not yet stretch to Pakistan turning on its former militant allies. The army says it is fighting on too many fronts already and must give priority to tackling the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other groups which threaten Pakistan rather than launching yet another military operation to clear out areas like North Waziristan, where the Haqqani network is based.

The army’s reluctance to turn on its old militant allies, however, also stems from a deep-rooted psychological angst about Pakistan’s security.  Once these Islamist militant groups are gone, Pakistan will have no leverage left to defend itself against its much bigger neighbour India to the east, nor against an India-friendly Afghanistan to the west.  Traditionally, to a military mind, defence of borders equals national security – an idea that remained unchanged even after Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons. And nor would Pakistan have reliable proxies which it believes might help give it influence in Afghanistan. A report just produced outlining what the Pakistani establishment hopes to see in Afghanistan makes it clear that it still sees a role for both the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network in a political settlement in Afghanistan.

It is in changing that psychological angst about Pakistan’s security that the United States has hoped to find its elusive solution.

Yet there is no evidence that in the short-run Pakistan’s borders are going to become any more secure. On the Indian side, a slow-moving peace process is making slow but steady progress, helped in part by a focus on improving trade relations. But those gains are fragile, vulnerable to a major new attack on Indian territory, like the 2008 assault on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants. They are also offset by growing tensions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with both countries accusing the other of failing to take firm enough action against militants operating on both sides. 

One hope is that Pakistan will shift its focus eventually from external security to internal security – with a functioning democracy and better governance helping to deliver both political and economic security.  This internal security would in turn help it build better economic and trade ties with both Afghanistan and India, locking all three countries into the kind of economic inter-dependency that make it in their interests to retain friendly relations.

But that will take very a long time. And as George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued in a report titled “Stop Enabling Pakistan’s Dangerous Dysfunction”, the very process of building democracy has often been undermined by the U.S. reliance on the Pakistan army as its main partner in fighting militants. (At its worst, that conundrum means that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan requires it to work most closely with the Pakistan army, thereby undermining a transition to democracy in Pakistan which could make it easier for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.)

There are not going to be any easy solutions to all this.  But the United States is not the Soviet Union. For all its financial troubles, the U.S. economy is in nowhere near the state of decay that the Soviet economy reached when the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan. And unlike the Soviet Union, the United States does not have a superpower actively campaigning against it, as Moscow did when the U.S. backed insurgents fighting the Soviet occupation.  Washington’s policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan might need some rethinking, but it seems to be determined to stay the course. In that sense, the Kabul attack changed very little.

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