Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
If there was one thing the United States might have learned in a decade of war is that military might alone cannot compensate for lack of knowledge about people and conditions on the ground. That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq, and may also turn out to be the case in Libya.
Yet the heated debate about using Predator drones to target militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan – triggered by the spy row between the CIA and the ISI – appears to be falling into a familiar pattern – keep bombing versus stop bombing. Not whether, when and how drones might be effective, based on specific conditions and knowledge of the ground, and when they are counter-productive.
Combined with that is a tendency to discuss the use of drones in isolation without taking account of the historical context (Pakistan and the United States have been rowing about this for several years – it is not new) or indeed the broader political context (a botched drone attack by the CIA is guaranteed to enrage all the more if it comes at a time when American diplomats are trying to convince Pakistan they want to improve relations.)
Consider, for example, the case of a tribesman with a performing monkey who gathered an audience of turban-clad, rifle-bearing men around him in a village in 2005. The U.S. controllers of the drone mistook the event for a weapons-training session or military briefing and dropped a missile, killing many in the audience. That story was recounted by General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, now head of the Pakistan Army, and quoted by Brian Cloughley in his book “War, Coups and Terror”. “This, said the General, was an example of lack of cultural understanding,” wrote Cloughley.
According to the New York Times, Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor arrested in Pakistan for shooting dead two Pakistanis in what he says was an act of self-defence, was working with a CIA team monitoring the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.
The article, by Washington-based Mark Mazzetti, was not the first to make this assertion. The NYT itself had already raised it, while Christine Fair made a similar point in her piece for The AfPak Channel last week (with the intriguing detail that “though the ISI knew of the operation, the agency certainly would not have approved of it.”)
In a rare admission of the effectiveness of drone strikes, a senior Pakistani military officer has said most of those killed are hard-core militants, including foreigners, according to Dawn newspaper.
It quotes Major-General Ghayur Mehmood as telling reporters at a briefing in Miramshah, in North Waziristan, that, “Myths and rumours about US predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners.”
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.”
The Afghan Taliban would be ready to break with al Qaeda in order to reach a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war, and to ensure Afghanistan is not used as a base for international terrorism, according to a report by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, released by New York University.
It says that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda was strained both before and after the September 11 2001 attacks, partly because of their very different ideological roots. Al Qaeda grew out of militant Islamism in the Middle East, notably in Egypt, which — when fused with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan — created its own view of global jihad. Taliban leaders grew up in rural southern Afghanistan, isolated from world events. Many were too young to play a big role in the Afghan jihad, and had no close ties to al Qaeda until after they took power in 1996.
U.S. pressure on Pakistan has always led to deep resentment within the Pakistan Army, which has taken heavy casualties of its own fighting Pakistani Taliban militants on its side of the border with Afghanistan. But there are signs that this resentment is now spiralling in dangerously unpredictable ways.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has denied it was responsible for revealing the name of a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official in Pakistan, forcing him to flee the country after threats to his life. But the suspicion lingers that the ISI, which falls under the control of the Pakistan Army, is flexing its muscles in response to U.S. pressure.
Pakistan is increasingly talking up the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. And while there is little sign yet Washington is ready to hold serious negotiations with Afghan insurgents, analysts detect a new tone in Pakistani comments about driving Osama bin Laden’s organization out of its haven on the Pakistan border.
A senior security official said the Afghan stalemate could be lifted by setting a minimum agenda in which insurgents broke with al Qaeda. There were indications, he said, they could renounce the organisation and ask it to leave the region. Senior politician Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, a pro-Taliban member of the ruling coalition, also said a settlement “would squeeze the room for al Qaeda.” ”Al Qaeda will have to fall in line or leave the region,” he told Reuters in an interview late last month.
The question of whether the links between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda can be broken has been discussed at length over the past year or so, and will be a major factor in any eventual peace settlement with insurgents in Afghanistan.
So it’s interesting to see this post by Alex Strick van Linschoten highlighting what he calls the first semi-official acknowledgement from a Talib – former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef - of Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
So little is known about al Qaeda that it is can be tempting to see patterns when none exist, or conversely to see only madness when there is method at work.
But with that health warning, it’s interesting to see Afghanistan cropping up in recent comments from both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Council on Foreign Relations has just released a new report on U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan based on a study by a bipartisan group chaired by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former national security adviser Sandy Berger and directed by CFR senior fellow Daniel Markey.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, the report broadly endorses U.S. policy of trying to build a long-term partnership, while also aiming to persuade it to turn convincingly against all militant groups. It reiterates a U.S. complaint that while Pakistan is ready to act against militants that threaten the Pakistani state, like al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, it continues to support or tolerate other groups it believes can be used as proxies against India, including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Among a range of incentives to build a better relationship with Pakistan, the report argues for continued U.S. financial support for Pakistan, all the more needed after this summer’s devastating floods, along with more favourable trade terms to boost the textile industry, which it says provides 38 percent of the country’s industrial employment.