Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Pakistan – a list too long

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childPakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi had a good post up last week attempting to frame the many different challenges Pakistan faces in trying to deal with terrorism.  Definitely worth a read as a counter-balance to the vague “do more” mantra, and as a reminder of how little serious public debate there is out there about the exact nature of the threat posed to a nuclear-armed country of some 180 million people, whose collapse would destabilise the entire region and beyond.

Zaidi has divided the challenges into counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.

Counter-insurgency is focused on targeting militants holed up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan, with attention directed most recently on U.S. pressure to tackle militant hideouts in North Waziristan.  Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to move faster in launching military operations in North Waziristan, in part because it says it needs time to consolidate gains made elsewhere in FATA — itself possible only if adequate governance can be introduced into areas cleared by the army.

“Thus far, Pakistan has fought the insurgency in FATA and earlier, last year, in Swat, using two instruments: negotiation, and conventional military warfare, including ground troops and aerial strikes. This is not how you fight an insurgency. That is how you fight India. To use a hackneyed and tired metaphor in Islamabad, you can’t keep using a jack hammer to try and kill agile, determined and poisonous flies. The approach to the FATA insurgency is all wrong,” writes Zaidi.

The sound and fury of the Pakistan-Afghanistan debate

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Marriott Hotel in Islamabad after bombingThe debate about the fate of Pakistan and Afghanistan is getting noisier by the day.

According to this McClatchy report, a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate — reflecting the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies — has described Pakistan as being “on the edge”.

Tactics versus strategy in Afghanistan

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Reading the latest spate of news reports about U.S. policies in Afghanistan, one thing strikes me as troubling — the failure to distinguish between tactics and strategy. Military boffins argue about the exact meaning of those two words, but for the purposes of argument, let’s say that tactics are a means to an end, while strategy contains within it an understanding of the end to be attained.

Dust storm in Kabul/Ahmad MasoodU.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave us an idea of the end earlier this week when he talked of reconciliation with the Taliban, while excluding anyone belonging to al Qaeda. ”There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this,” Gates said. ”That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”

Will Pakistan become a quagmire for the United States?

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File photo of Pakistani soldiers at a post overlooking Wana in South WaziristanFollowing up on yesterday’s post about U.S. military action in Pakistan, I see the New York Times is reporting that President George W. Bush secretly approved orders in July allowing American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government.

The new orders, it says, relax firm restrictions on conducting raids on the soil of an important ally without permission.

U.S. and Pakistan: Is there method in the madness?

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File photo of national flagLast week, after U.S. forces were reported to have launched their first ground assault in Pakistan, the website Registan.net asked the obvious question: “Did We Just Invade Pakistan?”  Nearly a week and several missile attacks by U.S. drones later, I am still pondering the same question.

We have just witnessed what may have been the most sustained U.S. military action against targets inside Pakistan, not just since 2001, but since 1947 when the country was founded.  Yet it is not any clearer what is going on.  The Council on Foreign Relations has produced an excellent round-up of media reports on Pakistan, published by the Washington Post. But I’d defy anyone to read through them and come up with a coherent hypothesis that does not immediately run into a contradiction.  Here are some of the ideas being discussed:

Obama says Pakistan used U.S. aid to prepare for war against India

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Senator Obama speaks in Milwaukee/Allen FredricksonSenator Barack Obama has accused Pakistan of misusing U.S. military aid meant to help it fight al Qaeda and the Taliban to prepare for war against India. In an interview with Fox News he also says the United States must put more pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Islamist militants, hold it accountable for increased military support, and be prepared to act aggressively against al Qaeda; “if we have bin Laden in our sights, we target him and we knock him out,” he says. However he adds that “nobody talked about some full-blown invasion of Pakistan.”

The latter part of his comments is not that new, nor indeed that different from the policies of the current U.S. administration. But it is his comment about India that has been seized upon by the media in South Asia. ”We are providing them military aid without having enough strings attached. So they’re using the military aid that we use, to Pakistan, they’re preparing for war against India,” he says.

Are the Taliban under pressure in Pakistan?

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File photo of South WaziristanAre the Taliban and al Qaeda finally under serious pressure in their hideouts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?

Pakistani officials say U.S.-led helicopter-borne troops launched a ground assault on a Pakistani village near the Afghan border on Wednesday, killing 20 people.  The raid, in the South Waziristan tribal area, was the first known incursion into Pakistan by U.S.-led troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Will Obama’s Afghan plans survive Kashmir crisis?

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Senator Barack Obama/Hugh GentryLess than a month ago, Senator Barack Obama was saying  that the U.S. war in Afghanistan would be made easier if the United States worked to improve trust between India and Pakistan. “A lot of what drives, it appears, motivations on the Pakistan side of the border, still has to do with their concerns and suspicions about India,” he told a news conference in Amman.

The logic was in line with thinking expounded by U.S. analysts at the time who argued that elements within Pakistan will never completely relinquish support for Islamist militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan as long as they believe they can be used to counter Indian influence in the region. Therefore end Pakistan’s insecurity about India, and support for militants will melt away, making the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban much easier — or so the argument goes.  At least that was the thinking barely a few weeks ago, as I wrote in an earlier blog on this subject

Would peace between India and Pakistan help stabilise Afghanistan?

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File photo of Indian soldiers behind pictures of victims of Kabul embassy bombingAs far as a strategy for Afghanistan is concerned, it’s a long shot. Bring peace to India and Pakistan and not only will that stabilise Pakistan but it will also ease tensions in Afghanistan. Indeed it’s such a long shot that it has not been considered as a serious policy option. That was until last month’s bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. 

A spate of allegations that Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),  was involved in the bombing has forced India-Pakistan rivalry back onto centre-stage. This is not just about India and Pakistan, or so the argument goes. Their rivalry is undermining U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban since the ISI is maintaining links with Islamist militants to counter Indian influence in the region. And Pakistan’s denial of involvement in the embassy attack has done little to quell the speculation.

Food crisis adds to Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions

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April photo of man at Kabul flour marketIt would be hard to think of a more complex web of problems.  Pakistan and Afghanistan face, in very different ways, severe domestic political crises which are being exacerbated by soaring prices and food shortages. Both blame each other for failing to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now tensions are rising over attempts by Pakistan, the traditional supplier of food to Afghanistan, to curb its wheat exports to make sure it can feed its own hungry population.

For an idea of how significant this is in Afghanistan, it’s worth reading this piece in the Chicago Tribune. “Western officials – including officers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force – say the food crisis is potentially more destabilizing to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai than the insurgency itself,” it says.

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