Obama’s Af-Pak strategy: tossing away the COIN – Dr Mohammad Taqi

– The Pakistani planners apparently lauded the UN separation of the Taliban and al Qaeda on the sanctions blacklist. This distinction does not necessarily mean lifting the sanctions; it in fact sets the stage for further sanctions against al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, especially the India-oriented Punjabi jihadist groups based in Pakistan’s heartland

In his speech on June 22, 2011, Barack Obama outlined the drawdown of the US forces from Afghanistan. He declared his plans to pull out 10,000 troops from Afghanistan at the year’s end and another 23,000 by mid-2012, essentially withdrawing all troops inducted during the 2009 surge. Obama pledged the drawdown at a steady pace until the transition of security to the Afghan authorities by 2014.

The deliberations leading to his decision, including the stance of his various advisors, congressional hearings after the speech and indeed sections of the speech itself hint towards what lies ahead in the Pak-Afghan region, not only in the next two years but also after 2014. When it came to selling Obama’s plan to the congressional leaders, the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, ‘excused’ himself and was represented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who conceded before the House Armed Services Committee that he had hoped for a slower pace of withdrawal. Mullen had described the plan as more aggressive and riskier than he was originally prepared to accept.

Similarly, General David Petraeus and the man set to replace him as head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General John Allen, have stated that Obama’s final plan was not one of the options proposed to the president by General Petraeus. Except for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, most officials have placed their dissenting note on record. Nonetheless, the US brass has closed ranks behind Obama and seem to have taken ownership of the task he has assigned them.

From the Pakistani perspective, there are multiple indicators pointing towards things heating up for them in the near future. Most importantly, Obama stated in his speech: “Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am president, the US will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us. They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.” While the US military commanders may have differed on the pace of drawdown from Afghanistan, it is this aspect of his plan that they totally concur with.

On June 28, 2011, at the US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, General Allen and Vice Admiral William McRaven — the Obama nominee to head US Special Operations Command — were quite candid, not just about Obama’s overall plan, but the aspects of it that deal directly with Pakistan. In response to Senator Carl Levin’s question about Pakistan’s attitude vis-à-vis the militants, especially the Haqqani network, Admiral McRaven bluntly noted that he did not expect any change in Pakistan’s approach towards these proxies because it was “both a capacity issue for the Pakistanis and…a willingness issue”. More ominously, when asked by Senator Bob Graham: “Do we believe Mullah Omar is there with the knowledge of the ISI and the upper echelons of the army?” McRaven responded, “Sir, I believe the Pakistanis know he is in Pakistan.”

Where does this leave us, or more importantly, lead us? As much as Obama has a visceral dislike for war and, unlike George W Bush, is not trigger-happy, he has made up his mind that he will not be gun shy when it comes to enforcing the key elements of his plan to end the war in Afghanistan, which means tossing away the counterinsurgency (COIN) in Afghanistan, in favour of a counter-terrorism effort along the Durand Line. Buoyed by the results of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Obama will not reinvent the wheel and intends to apply the same model for both the Haqqani network and the ‘irreconcilable’ Afghan Taliban. The primary US focus will now be on the Pakistan-supported insurgents.

Contrarily, Pakistan is tempted to wait out the US and may overplay its hand while trying to hedge its bets in Afghanistan. The inaction against the militant safe havens in North Waziristan (NW) and the talk about military action in the Kurram Agency suggest no course correction on the part of Pakistan. Reports from Upper Kurram state that the locals are being asked by Pakistani security agencies to disarm, effectively leaving them at the mercy of the Haqqani network and its affiliates. It is unlikely that the Turi and Bangash tribes will disarm and become sitting ducks for the jihadists. The chaos that can ensue, including massive internal displacement of people, provides an opportunity for the Pakistani establishment to retract and hide its proxies in the affected areas, as they become more vulnerable in NW and along the Durand Line.

The Pakistani planners apparently lauded the UN separation of the Taliban and al Qaeda on the sanctions blacklist. The move, obviously designed to pry away the Taliban from Pakistan and nudge them towards the peace process, has other key implications, which Pakistan apparently has overlooked. This distinction does not necessarily mean lifting the sanctions; it in fact sets the stage for further sanctions against al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, especially the India-oriented Punjabi jihadist groups based in Pakistan’s heartland. Adding to this calculus an extremely likely presence of about 25,000 US troops in at least three bases in Kandahar, Kabul and Bagram after 2014 makes the US withdrawal different from the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan that left the field wide open for Pakistani interference.

While the Pakistanis are celebrating the results of the Pew centre poll, which highlights a very unfavourable Pakistani opinion of the US (and a favourable view of anti-US politicians), they seem to ignore that, as far as Capitol Hill goes, the feeling is almost mutual. Unless Pakistan is taking a considered decision to remain on a collision course with the rest of the world, it is time for its leaders to do some serious soul searching. Shuffling the jihadist deck and hiding chips is not a realistic option. Maybe Pakistan’s one-man diplomatic army in DC, Ambassador Husain Haqqani can talk some sense into Pakistan’s civil and military leadership. While he has successfully persuaded Mullen and Clinton to play ball with Pakistan, one doubts that in a world of Kashmir elections and MQM’s revolving door politics, even he would be listened to in Pakistan.

Courtesy: Daily Times

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