March 05, 2010

And if the Yanks don’t go home?

Ashok Malik’t-go-home.html

Foreign policy commentators in New Delhi and the Generals and strategic establishment in Rawalpindi-Islamabad are working on the same assumption: That the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is inevitable, inescapable and imminent. The Pakistani Generals have been quick on the draw. They have begun the scramble for a post-withdrawal Kabul even before the Americans have actually begun their retreat.

In the short term, the Pakistani Afghan strategy has three components. First, drive the Indians out of Afghan- istan. Second, weaken President Hamid Karzai. Third, play factional politics within the Afghan Taliban so that the Haqqani militia, considered closest to the Inter-Services Intelligence, emerges victorious.

February’s attacks on Indian targets in Kabul were a pointer in this direction. They were believed to have been executed by the Haqqani faction to further the ISI mission of scaring away Indian economic assistance and capacity-building efforts.

The Haqqani faction is the ISI’s proxy. It has gradually gained primacy among the various Taliban groups. Mullah Omar’s faction — the so-called Quetta Shura — is being gradually undermined by Islamabad. As per Pakistani media reports, in a “massive crackdown” nine of 18 key members of the Quetta Shura have been arrested in the past two months. In the coming weeks, expect more senior operatives to be ‘captured’ or ‘persuaded’ by the ISI to defect.

Pakistan has trained its guns on the Queeta Shura ever since elements of it began negotiating with President Karzai’s agents. The ISI sees this as insubordination and seeks absolute control over all Afghan Taliban factions. Essentially, Pakistan is clearing the ground for a post-Karzai, post-America power shift in Kabul. It wants the Haqqani faction to take over, no questions asked. It has been encouraging American contact with the Haqqanis for about a year and will try and present this group as the “good” Taliban or at least the Taliban the West can work with.

The diminution of Mullah Omar has to be seen in this context. He is too much of a religious nutcase to understand or play second fiddle to Pakistan’s strategic interests, which are quite independent of any Islamic projections. In September 2001, Mullah Omar brushed aside the Saudis and the Pakistanis and refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States. He preferred risking an American ground invasion instead. The Generals didn’t quite understand this. True, more and more of the senior ranks of the Pakistan Army are turning Islamist. Yet, at the very top, the military leadership remains rational, cut-throat and bloody-minded. It doesn’t love universal jihad as much as it hates India.

As such, Rawalpindi is not bothered about who is a better theologian and more suited to imposing Sharia’h-compliant behaviour laws in Afghanistan — Jalaluddin Haqqani or Mullah Omar. It is more interested in who will serve it better in re-establishing Pakistan’s strategic depth and permitting the use of Afghanistan for unremitting assault on India as a priority over terrorist strikes against the West.

It is quite possible the ISI will lose control of Jalaluddin Haqqani — or his son Sirajuddin — should this wing of the Taliban eventually get to power in Kabul. Yet, that is a problem for the future. For the moment, the ISI and Pakistani praetorian guard on the one hand and the Haqqani clan on the other are in complete synergy.

However, there is one niggling question that remains to be answered: Is it certain the Americans will go home? In other words, have the Pakistanis declared victory a bit too early? Despite the recent London Conference on Afghanistan — where the British Government’s advocacy of a deal with the Taliban seemed to have prevailed, aimed as it was at boosting the Labour Party before this summer’s general election — the final picture remains unclear.

In Washington, DC, there is a compelling battle on between competing wings of the Obama Administration. One school wants to opt out of Afghanistan and would prefer to tackle terrorism in the West within a crime-fighting framework rather than through the prism of a cross-continental ideological war. Another section fears an American withdrawal will be a crippling blow to the superpower and its aura, influence and long-term security. There is concern that if Osama bin Laden appears on the streets of Kabul a few weeks after some sort of Taliban take over — and nobody can rule this out, least of all the ISI — clenches his fists and says “We smashed America”, the consequences will be catastrophic.

That domestic debate in Washington, DC, has not been settled; perhaps it will never be. What that means is an all-out military assault on the multiple Taliban regiments, stretched across Afghanistan and Pakistan, will not happen. Nobody has the stomach for that and, with the unwillingness of European allies to commit forces, nobody has the troops either.

Yet, equally, it also means there will be enough pressure on the American President to not walk away altogether. If nothing else, covert operations within Pakistani territory could intensify, drone attacks being complemented by on-ground targeted killings or assassinations. In short, the status quo may persist longer than a lot of people, especially the Pakistani Generals, think.

November 2010 could prove a key month for Afghanistan’s medium-term future. Congressional elections are due in the United States and will take place exactly midway through President Barack Obama’s term. The Democrats are decidedly nervous and fear the building disappointment with Mr Obama will hand them a drubbing. The Republicans are smelling blood. This is expected to be Mr Obama’s midterm jolt, just as the Republican triumph in the Congressional elections of 1994 was Mr Bill Clinton’s first-term jolt.

That setback in 1994 converted Mr Clinton from a namby-pamby compromiser to a realist. What will 2010 mean for Mr Obama? He will have to re-craft his agenda and branding if he is to rescue his sinking presidency. Doubtless the economy will remain his, and the voter’s, primary concern. However, he would also want to avoid being labelled the President who ran away from Afghanistan, didn’t give his Generals the men and time they sought and in effect wrote America’s obituary as a global power. By neglecting that potential scenario, Pakistan’s Generals could be making a fatal miscalculation.


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