Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
In a poignant tale published last month by Chashm, a new website set up to promote alternative discourse in Pakistan, the narrator describes what happened when the Taliban came to the village of Saidano, the site of a popular shrine in Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
First the Taliban imposed sharia; they banned all activity at the shrine and intimidated those in the political administration into quitting their jobs. The people organised themselves into a lashkar, or militia, to fight them. “In return, the Taliban pummelled the armed resistance and the people back into submission. Any attempt at resistance led to dissenters’ immediate silencing, including by slaughter.” Having decreed that visiting shrines was un-Islamic, the Taliban said they would demolish it. “With that note, the shrine of Bawal Haq Saheb was reduced to rubble by the Taliban. The people of Saidano were enraged at this heinous act of the Taliban, but no one could say anything…they were all scared.”
Another story on Qissa Khwani, a website about North-West Pakistan, describes the fate of 18-year-old Najib, “a studious, humble, calm and a normal boy”, a student in computer sciences from the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency, where several militant groups were fighting for control.
“He was forced to fight…as he was the only young boy in his family. It is mandatory for the people living in these militant-controlled areas to hand over one young man to fight… Najib was not trained for war, therefore he was used as a shield to protect the trained militants…and if anyone tried to escape or leave, either his family would be harmed or that person would be slaughtered. Najib’s fate was no different from those who tried to escape, he was cut into pieces and delivered to his family in a sack.”
One of the comments you hear quite often about the long U.S. war in Afghanistan is that the Americans should leave it to the region to sort out its own problems. It is sometimes said in fear that the United States will abandon Afghanistan to civil war; sometimes in exasperation over its often confusing policies; and sometimes in anger. With the U.S. approach to Afghanistan in disarray after protests over the burning of copies of the Koran, regional powers are, however, attempting to do just that. Progress, whether in the first meeting of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral, or in improved trade relations between Pakistan and India, or in regional diplomacy led by Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation among others, is extremely tentative. And regional powers, especially India and Pakistan, may yet end up backing opposing sides in any civil war which follows the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops at the end of 2014. But the fact that regional diplomacy is happening at all suggests there is at least some hope of salvaging the situation in Afghanistan.
China, whose help has long been sought by the administration of President Barack Obama to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan, hosted a meeting in Beijing at the end of last month in which the three countries pledged to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and to work together to accommodate each others’ concerns, a foreign ministry statement quoted by the China Daily said. “Analysts spoke highly of the significance of the dialogue,” the China Daily added, “which marked the beginning of new process for countries in the region to tackle problems by themselves.”
from Afghan Journal:
The Daily Telegraph reports that the status of forces agreement that the United States and Afghanistan are negotiating may allow a U.S. military presence in the country until 2024 . That's a full 10 years beyond the deadline for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
The negotiations are being conducted under a veil of security, and we have no way of knowing, at this point at least, if the two sides are really talking about U.S. troops in the country for that long. ( The very fact that a decade after U.S. troops entered the country there is no formal agreement spelling out the terms of their deployment is in itself remarkable)
During a visit to Beijing in late 2009, President Barack Obama asked China to help stabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan. The logic was obvious. China is a long-standing ally of Pakistan with growing investments there and in Afghanistan; it has the money to pay for the economic development and trade both countries need; and with its own worries about its Uighur minority, it is suspicious of militant Islamists. The challenge was in achieving this without angering India, which fought a border war with China in 1962 and is wary of its alliance with Pakistan.
A year-and-a-half on, efforts to forge that economic cooperation between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in full swing – though perhaps not entirely in the way Obama envisaged. The Wall Street quoted Afghan officials as saying that Pakistan was lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the United States, urging him instead to look to Pakistan and China for help.
In a report this month calling for faster progress on a political settlement on Afghanistan, the influential UK parliamentary foreign affairs committee was unusually critical of the dominance of the military in setting Afghan policy.
“We conclude that there are grounds for concern over the relationship between the military and politicians. We further conclude that this relationship has, over a number of years, gone awry and needs to be re-calibrated … we believe that problems in Afghanistan highlight the need for a corresponding cultural shift within Whitehall to ensure that those charged with taking foreign policy decisions and providing vitally important political leadership are able to question and appraise military advice with appropriate vigour,” it said.
According to Steve Coll in the New Yorker, the United States has begun its first direct talks with the Taliban to see whether it is possible to reach a political settlement to the Afghan war. He writes that after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington the United States rejected direct talks with Taliban leaders, on the grounds that they were as much to blame for terrorism as Al Qaeda. However, last year, he says, a small number of officials in the Obama administration—among them the late Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—argued that it was time to try talking to the Taliban again.
“Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.”
All countries are unique and comparing two of the world’s most populous Muslim countries, Egypt and Pakistan, is as risky as comparing Britain to France at the time of the French Revolution. But many of the challenges likely to confront Egypt as it emerges from the mass protests against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak are similar to those Pakistan has faced in the past, and provide at least a guide on what questions need to be addressed. In Pakistan, they are often summarised as the three A’s — Army, Allah and America.
Both have powerful armies which are seen as the backbone of the country; both have to work out how to accommodate political Islam with democracy, both are allies of America, yet with people who resent American power in propping up unpopular elites.
President Barack Obama’s words on relations with Pakistan were always going to be carefully scripted during his visit to India, where even to say the word “Kashmir” aloud in public can raise jitters about U.S. interference in what New Delhi sees as a bilateral dispute.
So first up, here’s what he had to say during a news conference in New Delhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in response to a question about what role the United States could play in resolving the Kashmir dispute (NDTV has the video).
In his must-read essay on the debate about the state of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Amil Khan has one of the best opening lines I’ve seen for a while: ”Much is said about Pakistan, but I’m constantly saddened that so many innocent pixels are lost without good cause.”
Much the same can be said about the recent flurry of stories on the war in Afghanistan, from upbeat assessments of the U.S.-led military offensive in Kandahar to renewed interest in the prospects for a peace deal with Afghan insurgents.
In Obama’s Wars, Rob Woodward attributes the following thoughts to U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on the prospects for a peaceful settlement to the Afghan war:
“He saw reconciliation and reintegration as distinct. Reconciliation was esoteric, an iffy high-level treaty with Taliban leaders. Reintegration occurred down at the local level in villages and towns…”