Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The Afghan “exit strategy” appears to be fraying badly before it has even had time to get properly underway. With many fearing civil war after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014, it was always going to be hard to weave together the different elements needed to offer a hope of peace. Among those elements was a concerted international strategy to show outside powers were not going to abandon Afghanistan by promising generous funding after foreign troops leave; some kind of regional detente, and sufficient momentum behind talks with Taliban insurgents to shape the conditions for a dignified withdrawal.
Yet signs are that it is getting harder rather than easier to pull those different moving parts together.
On the international front, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested that all responsibility for security should be handed over to Afghan forces by the end of 2013 -rather than the end of 2014 as planned. The idea is not particularly new – U.S. officials have also been reported to have explored the possibility of speeding up the transition. It would have the merit of allowing Afghan forces to take charge of security while U.S. and other combat troops remain to help in an emergency, and could also ease talks with insurgents, who derive much of their support from their opposition to “foreign occupation”.
Yet what chafed was that Sarkozy, who also announced France was pulling its own combat troops out by the end of 2013, gave the appearance of breaking ranks – undermining the consensus needed to give western countries leverage as they negotiate their way out of Afghanistan. He was also seen as being driven more by domestic politics after four French soldiers were killed than by a desire to frame a coherent, internationally agreed strategy. That is significant, not so much for what it means before 2014, but for what it says about the international approach to Afghanistan after 2014. Right now, the international community is engaged in a game of bluff about who is going to pick up the tab to fund Afghanistan’s development and security forces after 2014 - to succeed, all countries are going to have to agree to share the burden. If each country decides to put their domestic politics - and budgets - first, that is not going to happen and the Kabul government will fall. (The American Security Project has a great timeline illustrating the intersection between national elections and the Afghan withdrawal.)
One of Pakistan’s most bizarre political dramas appears to be running out of steam. What began as an unsigned memo seeking American help to rein in the military escalated into a full-blown power struggle between the civilian government and the army after Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz accused then ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani of writing it. Haqqani, who denied involvement, resigned and returned to Pakistan to clear his name. But that did nothing to stem a crisis in civilian-military relations which carried uncomfortable echoes of the 1990s when government after government were dismissed in a decade which ended in a coup in 1999.
With Haqqani now living in virtual house arrest in Pakistan, the so-called “Memogate” affair is far from over – it remains subject to judicial and parliamentary enquiries. But after weeks of drama, from coup rumours to allegations the army had already sought Gulf backing to take over - both denied by the military – to unusually spirited criticism of the army by the government, to the more farcical circulation of an old video featuring Ijaz commenting on naked female wrestling – the media feeding frenzy triggered by the memo appears finally to be satiated. Ijaz, meanwhile, has said he is unwilling to travel to Pakistan to testify, citing fears for his safety, diminishing his utility as a star player.
When Pakistan’s Express Tribune wrote this week that the CIA was likely to resume drone strikes for the first time since November, it included a quote from an unnamed Pakistani official saying that Pakistani authorities believed drones were “strategically harmful but tactically advantageous”. I tweeted the link and asked who would explain to the Pakistani public that the drone strikes – which have fuelled intense anti-Americanism – were seen even in their own country as “tactically advantageous”.
One of the answers was particularly telling. It was from a supporter of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of former cricketer Imran Khan – who has risen in popularity on a wave of anti-Americanism, opposition to drone strikes, and belief the government of President Asif Ali Zardari has sold out to the United States. Here is the tweet:
It is the season for “progress” on Taliban talks. In January 2010, the London conference on Afghanistan put the idea of negotiating with the Taliban firmly on the international agenda. In February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a major policy speech, insisted it was time the United States began to talk to its enemies. Her speech was accompanied by a leaked report that Washington was in fact already holding direct talks with the Taliban to try to convince them to join a political settlement and sever ties with al Qaeda. And now we have the Taliban agreeing to open a liaison office in Qatar to help speed along the talks process as Washington prepares to withdraw most combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
But what are we actually looking at here? A quick-fix settlement that could provide just about enough cover for war-weary western governments to pull their troops out before Afghanistan descends again into civil war? Or a serious process which might offer an enduring peace? Do we believe the Taliban are now more amenable to talks than they were before? Or rather that domestic political compulsions in the United States are driving it more rapidly towards the exit?