Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Towards a regional settlement in Afghanistan (Redux squared)

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arghandabRegular readers of this blog will know we have been talking for a long time about finding a regional solution to Afghanistan. The argument — much touted during President Barack Obama’s election campaign — was that you could stabilise the country if you persuaded the many regional players with a stake in Afghanistan — including Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China — to cooperate rather than compete in finding a political settlement to what was effectively an unwinnable war.

The argument looked at best utopian, at worst a description of the delicate balance of power in the early 20th century that was meant to keep the peace but in reality led to the outbreak of World War One.  It is now resurfacing again as public opinion in western countries — including in staunch U.S. ally Britain – turns against the long war in Afghanistan.

As discussed in this analysis, we are now seeing some fresh signs of regional cooperation. The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan hold talks on Thursday to try to break a diplomatic freeze which followed the 2008 attack on Mumbai. And Pakistan and Iran may have cooperated on the arrest of Jundollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi.

The utopian argument may finally about to have its day. That said, none of this is following a U.S. script. So we could also  see — as happened before 1914 — the best efforts at balancing out every nation’s interests turning out for the worst.

Pakistan’s arrest of Mullah Baradar: tactics or strategy?

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marjahThe arrest of Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi leaves big unanswered questions about why Pakistan chose to act now against a man credited with giving operational coherence to Afghan Taliban (or Quetta Shura Taliban) operations in Afghanistan.

The answers to those questions depend very much on the assumptions you start out with about what Pakistan is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. But for the sake of of argument, let’s take three  of them — that it is pushing the Taliban to sever ties with al Qaeda and enter negotiations on a political settlement; that it wants a stable Afghanistan, and that it is aiming to keep it free of Indian and Iranian influence.

“My Life with the Taliban” – on study and Islamic values

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zaeefIn  “My Life with the Taliban”,  Abdul Salam Zaeef — who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later served in the Taliban government before it was ousted in 2001 — writes of how he longed to escape the trappings of office and instead follow in the footsteps of his father as the Imam of a mosque, learning and teaching the Koran.

“It is work that has no connection with the world’s affairs. It is a calling of intellectual dignity away from the dangers and temptations of power. All my life, even as a boy, I was always happiest when studying and learning things. To work in government positions means a life surrounded by corruption and injustice, and therein is found the misery of mankind,” he writes in his memoirs, newly translated and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

On India-Pakistan thaw and the changing Afghan dynamics

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siachensaluteThere is a time and a place for everything and back in the days of the Obama election campaign the idea that progress on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan could help turn around the flagging military campaign in Afghanistan looked plausible. The argument, much touted by Washington think-tankers, was that Pakistan would not turn against Afghan Taliban militants on its western border as long as it believed it might need to use them to counter India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, and as long as it felt the need to keep the bulk of its army on its eastern border with India.

Even in the middle of last year, when Pakistan and India made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to revive peace talks which had been frozen since the attack on Mumbai at the end of 2008, the possibility of a “grand bargain” from Kashmir to Kabul still carried some resonance.

In Afghanistan: fighting over the terms of a settlement

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karzai londonAt last week’s London conference, two of the great truisms of warfare punched their way to the surface. The first is that wars are fought as much on the home front as on the battlefield. With public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing away, the United States and its allies in NATO have shifted from seeking outright victory to looking for an exit strategy that will allow them to start bringing home their troops next year.  Rather as the British did after their two failed invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century, they are sending in reinforcements in a display of military might which they hope will secure better terms in an eventual settlement.

The other truism is that if you can’t win outright victory on the battlefield, then you have to negotiate with your enemies. President Hamid Karzai set the ball rolling by announcing he would hold a peace council to which, according to an Afghan government spokesman, the Taliban leadership would be invited.  Karzai has made such suggestions before, and it is by no means clear the Taliban leadership will send representatives. What was different this time, however, was the context.  Karzai’s suggestion no longer met with the same resistance from war-weary governments, who stressed that it was up to the Afghans themselves to lead the process of reconciliation.  He also coupled his call for a peace council with an appeal to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia is a trusted interlocutor between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership; Pakistan is the only country which still has some measure of leverage over them. Thus Karzai’s call for a loya jirga, though not dramatic in itself, became emblematic of a broader shift towards seeking a political settlement to end the war.

On Taliban/AQ ties and the Afghanistan exit strategy

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british soldierVahid Brown at the CTC Sentinel has a new article (pdf document) out arguing that the relationship between Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden before 9/11 was considerably more fractious than it was made out to be.  The main source of argument was between the Taliban’s Afghan nationalist agenda and bin Laden’s view of global jihad, and in particular his determination to attack the United States, he says.

Based on an account by an insider, he challenges the assumption that bin Laden personally swore an oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. The account by Egyptian jihadist Mustafa Hamid, better known as Abul-Walid al-Masri, was first published in jihadist forums in 2007 but gained little attention outside specialist websites.

from Afghan Journal:

The price of greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan

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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is heading to India, and one of the things Washington is looking at is how can regional players such as India do more in Afghanistan. "As we are doing more, of course we are looking at others to do more," a U.S. official said, ahead of the trip referring to the troop surge.

But this is easier said than done, and in the case of India, a bit of a minefield. While America may expect more from India, Pakistan has had enough of its bitter rival's already expanded role in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Indeed, Afghanistan is the new battleground on par with Kashmir, with many in Pakistan saying Indian involvement in Afghanistan was more than altruistic and aimed at destabilising Pakistan from the rear.  Many in India, on the other hand, point the finger at Pakistan for two deadly bomb attacks on its embassy in Kabul.

from Afghan Journal:

Opening up Afghanistan’s trade routes

Afghan seller at the World Pomegranate Fair in Kabul. Pic by Reuters/Omar Sobhani

Afghan seller at the World Pomegranate Fair in Kabul. Pic by Reuters/Omar Sobhani

The United States is pressing Pakistan to allow Afghan agriculture products to pass through its territory to India, the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a trip to the war-torn country this week. Opening India's huge and exploding market to Afghan farmers sounds like a perfectly logical thing to do. Their produce of dried fruits, nuts and pomegranates long made its way to India before the partition of  India and Pakistan in 1947, immortalised in Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's classic story for children, Kabuliwallah.

Pakistan seen drifting away from the west

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american flagPakistan is likely to drift further away from the west in the years ahead as pressure from Islamist groups and anti-Americanism undermine the traditional moorings of the secular pro-western elite, according to a report just released by the Legatum Institute. 

The report rules out the possibility of a Taliban takeover or of Pakistan becoming a failed state, predicting it is most likely to ”muddle through” with the army continuing to play a powerful role behind the scenes in setting foreign and security policy. “Rather than an Islamist takeover, you should look at a subtle power shift from a secular pro-Western society to an Islamist anti-American one,” said Jonathan Paris, the author of the report.

Afghanistan and Pakistan: on the battle for Kandahar

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arghandabIn the vast swirl of debate about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is worth taking the time to read this piece in the Small Wars Journal by Michael Yon about the looming battle for Kandahar and the central importance of the Arghandab River Valley (pdf document).

Just as “a tiger doesn’t need to completely understand the jungle to survive, navigate, and then dominate”, Yon argues, you don’t have to master the full geographical and historical complexity of the Afghan war to grasp the importance of the Arghandab River Valley in securing Kandahar — a battle he suggests will be crucial in 2010.

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