The United States is pursuing a policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre that risks an outcome that would combine the fiascos of Vietnam and the Shah’s Iran. It could lead not only to the loss of Afghanistan but also that of Pakistan, with consequences that are frightening to contemplate. What underlies this disaster in the making is a failure to comprehend the real problem the US faces in the region, and the resulting pursuit of solutions that not only do no good but instead make matters worse.
Understanding the Enemy
The first failure lies in misunderstanding the nature of the enemy confronting the US, and the goals that enemy is pursuing. The enemy is not al-Qaeda “terrorists” hiding in the mountains, plotting terror attacks on the US and the West. The Bush administration propagated this notion (of a worldwide Islamist terror network, led by al-Qaeda, forever planning attacks on the US and the West) in order to win support for its scheme to wage unending war, at home and abroad, on whomever it chose to designate as an enemy. Even though the new administration has dropped the use of the GWOT term, the false concepts underlying it continue to seriously contaminate US policy discourse and thinking.
The enemy the US faces in the ‘Af-Pak’ theatre is a grouping of Islamists with different agendas that happen to coincide for the time being. Al-Qaeda and its associates (including the Haqqanis and Hikmatyar) are political Islamists, whose aim is to establish the political, economic and military power of Islam – by repelling Western encroachments on Muslim countries and ultimately taking them over. Political Islamists also exist in Pakistani society and state structures (as they do in every Muslim country). The majority of the groups that are collectively known as the Taliban are religious Islamists, whose primary aim is to establish their brand of orthodoxy among Muslim populations; they are not too concerned about political and economic issues. (“Terrorists”, who blow themselves and others up, are brainwashed unfortunates used by both the other groups; they are low-rent cannon fodder, not the enemy).
The principal foe the US faces is the political Islamists, because it is their goals (not the Taliban’s) that clash with vital US interests. The Western military presence and operations in the area have led to the goals of both types of Islamists converging, and this has enabled the political Islamists to use the Taliban as foot soldiers in their campaign to defeat the West in Afghanistan. But the missteps of US foreign and military policy have suddenly opened up for them the prospect of a takeover in Pakistan. The strategy they are now pursuing is to use the Pakistani Taliban to exert sufficient pressure on Pakistan to fracture the state structure and provide an opportunity for the internal political Islamists to take over the country. Most of the Pakistani Taliban are mainly interested in imposing religious orthodoxy, not achieving political power (their Afghani counterparts share this aim, but are also interested in regaining the political power that they lost due to the US invasion).
Though the military objectives of both religious and political Islamists happen to coincide at the moment, their long-term aims are different and could diverge under appropriate circumstances. If the Taliban could achieve their goal of establishing their religious system in some areas, they may well lose their appetite for protracted warfare against superior military forces.
Understanding the Threat
The combined Islamist militants that the US and the West face in the Af-Pak theatre are now threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The focus of US-NATO policy is Afghanistan; because this is where the militant threat existed at the time the policy was originally fashioned. The second grave conceptual error has been the failure to recognize that the nature of the threat in the theatre has significantly changed. This has happened because of a flawed planning process that the present administration inherited, and which it has allowed to continue.
The Bush administration allowed the Pentagon to fashion both policy and strategy in its war theatres. The Pentagon and the generals have been and still are fighting a war in Afghanistan; this is their main focus. In this view, Pakistan was merely a problem that was making victory in Afghanistan more difficult. That is why the US compelled Pakistan to conduct military operations against the Taliban in its border areas, while also subjecting the area to drone attacks. This caused (and continues to cause) significant strains within Pakistan, including on its government and military, and has resulted in the creation of an indigenous Taliban movement that is now attacking parts of the country. There is now a tangible risk of a takeover of Pakistan by political Islamists.
The Obama administration’s new policy talks a lot about the critical importance of Pakistan – but it is still with reference to winning the war in Afghanistan. Thus, the policy and resulting strategy concentrate on the battle in Afghanistan, with Pakistan continuing in its role of the necessary adjunct, subject to the same extreme US pressure (ostensibly sweetened with promises of financial largesse soon to come) and drone attacks (with their inevitable civilian casualties). This is the military tail wagging the policy dog; this is generals choosing not only how they will fight, but also whom. This is the military marching to the edge of the cliff, eyes wide shut, with no control or guidance by the nation’s policy makers and leaders.
The recent scare in Washington caused by the Taliban incursions into areas adjoining Swat has led to concern over the vulnerability of Pakistan, and also emphasized its criticality. However, the Pakistan military response is allaying these fears, and soon Pakistan is likely to be seen again as merely a supporting player in the Afghan campaign, important but secondary. What will not be understood is that what the Pakistan military has been compelled by US pressure to do in Malakand is a repeat of their Bajaur operation – treating the area as a free fire zone and subjecting it to intense air and artillery bombardment, the brunt of which is borne by the local population, causing significant casualties and large-scale displacements, while most of the Taliban slip away into surrounding areas without suffering much loss. Such operations may satisfy the US, but add to the unpopularity of the government and the military while driving more recruits into the ranks of the insurgents. They don’t make Pakistan more secure, they make it much more vulnerable.
The United States needs to recognize that the main threat it faces in this region is a takeover in Pakistan by political Islamists (the Taliban cannot do so), as a result of the internal and external strains to which the country is being subjected. That Pakistan is the main battleground, not Afghanistan. That if Pakistan goes, it does not matter what happens in Afghanistan (what is most likely, of course, is the same outcome there soon after). To develop a rational policy and strategy to counter this danger to Pakistan (and its own vital interests), the US must understand the situation that actually exists in Pakistan today, not what its clients and other vested interests feed it.
Understanding the Battleground
Pakistan is a dysfunctional country. The economy is in dire straits, outside assistance alone prevents the country from going bankrupt, government is not functioning, politicians are lining their own pockets when they are not undermining each other, the bureaucracy is paralysed due to political meddling, corruption is massive and all-pervasive, civil society is in disarray, the military is under considerable stress, while ordinary people are facing severe hardships in their daily lives.
Beset by these numerous problems, Pakistanis have watched their government and military, pressured by the US, wage war on their own people in the tribal areas and Malakand. Neither equipped nor trained to deal with an insurgency, the military’s heavy-handed tactics have added to the strains already existing within the country, deepening the alienation of the people from the ruling elites, and increasing the hostility that they feel towards the US and its policies (which, it is widely believed, serve US geopolitical aims in the region, and are inimical to Pakistan’s own national interests).
Locked in these oppressive circumstances, the people of Pakistan do not see Islamists as their enemy (even though many feel disdain for the Taliban, and revulsion at their tactics). Vested interests have sold to the US the idea that the way to win the friendship and support of the people is to provide massive amounts of financial aid. The administrative structure that can ensure that these funds serve the purpose for which they are meant – improving the lot of ordinary Pakistanis and strengthening the institutions that serve the people – does not exist, nor are there any effective mechanisms for oversight or audit. These funds will line the pockets of those who will handle them: politicians, officials, and their cronies. Very little of the aid will benefit the people, and, instead of it winning their goodwill, the result will be the exact opposite: it will be seen as the US bribing the ruling elite to carry out its wishes, even at the cost of Pakistan’s own interests.
The people of Pakistan will not fight to protect, or even stand up for, a system in which they have no stake, a system that only oppresses and loots them. A significant proportion of them see the Islamist ideology propagated by al-Qaeda and the Taliban as providing a solution to their problems rather than a threat to their non-existent well-being. Only when a reasonable level of governance prevails in Pakistan is it likely that people will feel that they have a stake in the system, and thus some incentive to stand up in its defence.
Pakistan is dysfunctional, but it is not a primitive state or society. It possesses all the structures and systems needed by a modern country to function, but they are unable to work as they should. Years of misrule by both politicians and generals, massive and pervasive corruption, the sabotage of institutions that might resist corrupt rulers and their minions, the breakdown of civic responsibility, have all led to these structures and systems becoming broken, rusted, misaligned, dysfunctional.
Selecting a Rational Aim and Policies
A realistic assessment and understanding of the enemy the US faces in the Af-Pak theatre, and the most dangerous threat that this enemy poses to US vital interests, as well as of the battleground the US is engaged in, should lead to the conclusion that the only rational aim for the US in that theatre is to ensure, as its first priority, that Pakistan is not taken over by Islamists. All else, including the war in Afghanistan, is secondary (and subordinate) to achieving this aim.
This aim cannot be achieved by forcing the Pakistan government and military to wage brutal military operations against its own people. It requires the US to follow a policy that assists Pakistan in immediately making the necessary structural changes that would enable it to become functional enough to stop further Islamist encroachments, and utilise effectively the nation-building aid that the US and the international community are prepared to provide it.
This aim also requires the US to revise its goals in Afghanistan. It cannot pursue there a military campaign that is dependent on Pakistan carrying out major operations in its tribal areas against the Afghan Taliban and their allies (which impose considerable strain on Pakistan’s stability).
Shoring up Pakistan
As an immediate measure, the US should concentrate on helping Pakistan deal effectively with the serious problem posed by the large-scale displacement of people from Swat and surrounding areas. This should include bringing in US disaster-relief resources and expertise (the US won a lot of goodwill when it came to the aid of earthquake survivors in 2005). The negative impact on public opinion of the effects of the military operations in these areas could be blunted if the refugees are well looked after.
The structural changes that need to be made in Pakistan will have to be carried out by Pakistanis. There is a wide constituency for them in the country; powerful elements of state and society would be ready to support and advance them. However, what has prevented them from being instituted are equally powerful vested interests, as well as the inertia of a complex but broken-down system. What is required to get the process moving is for the United States to put its weight behind such change. Such a move would mobilize the many forces in the country that favour them, and also effectively neutralize the opposition.
A package of measures needs to be implemented immediately to stabilize Pakistan and enable it to resist and overcome the threat it faces of an Islamist takeover. Apart from repairing the broken and paralysed governmental machinery, they would provide hope to ordinary people and give them a stake in the future of the country. These measures are:
• Administration: To ensure the provision of services and protection to the people by an administrative machinery that is efficient, not corrupt, and which is not manipulated by politicians or other special interests, the civil service and the police should be placed under the control of independent Public Service Commissions, comprising retired senior administrators and judges. These commissions should control and manage the hiring, appointments and promotions of all managerial and executive level public servants. The government Rules of Business should clearly prescribe and require that ministers lay down policies but cannot interfere in their detailed implementation by public servants. Government fiscal auditors should be made independent, and should carry out their duties on a real-time basis.
• Controlling Corruption: This cancer that is eating away at every organ of the state, and polluting every aspect of life in the country, has to be checked and beaten back. There are a sufficient number of honest and able persons available in the country to staff an organization to begin this task. This cleansing operation has to start from the top; no one should have immunity from scrutiny and accountability, neither politicians nor generals, nor judges or high officials.
• Security: Until the military has developed an effective counter-insurgency capability (and the country is sufficiently stabilized) it should block any organized insurgent threats in the border areas (instead of waging Bajaur and Swat type operations). Public security should be established by rapidly increasing the anti-terrorist capabilities of the various police forces. A concerted effort should be made to root out groups known to have insurgent affiliations, including shutting down madrassahs with such links or sponsorship.
• Rule of Law: To re-establish the rule of law the superior judiciary should be purged of the corrupt, inefficient and partial judges with whom it has been packed over the years. There exist a number of capable and upright former judges who gave up their posts rather than violate their oath of office to uphold the constitution. A commission comprising some of these judges should be set up to scrutinize the qualifications and performance record of all sitting judges of the Supreme and High Courts, and those who are found to be unfit should be removed. This commission should also fill the resulting vacancies. Future appointments to these courts should be made through a process in which the judiciary and the legal profession have a major voice, not politicians.
• The Constitution: There exists a political consensus that the 1973 constitution be restored, purged of all later amendments. It should be so restored, followed by a process of mature examination of the issue of appropriate checks and balances between the various state and territorial entities of the country, so as to avoid some of the problems that have arisen since its promulgation.
• Free Media: The media in Pakistan is fairly free, though off and on it is subjected to pressure by powerful people. This freedom should be ensured for the future so that it can monitor and report lapses before they become major problems.
• Bolstering the Economy: As soon as these basic measures are starting to become effective, the economic aid that the US and other donors have promised should begin to flow in a planned and controlled manner.
• Elections: Mid-term elections should be held in early 2010 under a reconstituted, impartial Election Commission, which should be able to call upon the military to provide whatever assistance is needed to ensure that the elections are free and fair. This will restore legitimate political leadership to the country.
To someone who does not know much about Pakistan this will seem a formidable list of tasks, requiring years to implement. But the necessary pre-requisites are all there – a strong desire for such change prevails among influential groups; an elaborate, sophisticated administrative structure exists (even though it doesn’t function properly at present), with many conscientious and capable civil servants; the Chief Justice wants to clean up the judiciary; the media is free and vibrant; files exist on high level corruption. All that is required is a catalyst to start the process and release the potential synergy, and within one year most of these measures should be well-advanced and producing results.
The United States carries tremendous clout with the key players in Pakistan; the country is dependent on US aid and international support to remain viable. Once the United States indicates that the institution of such an immediate reform program is a pre-requisite for it to prop up, and later rebuild, the country, it will immediately mobilize and energize a strong internal coalition of forces to carry it out. These allies are likely to include the military, the Supreme Court, the PML-N (which rules in the Punjab) and some other political parties, large sections of the bureaucracy, civil society, and the mass of ordinary people, who will see the prospect of a better life opening up. Those vested interests that have a stake in the continuation of the present state of affairs will not be able to resist this coalition.
A Pakistan so reformed will prove to be impregnable to the blandishments, inroads and assaults of the Islamists. The goodwill that the US will gain in backing and supporting such a program would be of far greater significance and permanence than the influence it now wields through its clients among the ruling elite. Pakistan would become a stable friend and ally in this volatile region.
In recognizing Pakistan as the main focus of its strategy in the Af-Pak theatre the United States will need to change its strategy in Afghanistan. It can no longer afford to call upon Pakistan to conduct large-scale military operations in its tribal areas in order to neutralize the Afghan Taliban and prevent them from attacking its forces in Afghanistan. Nor can it afford to continue drone attacks in these areas. With such operations off the table, the US and NATO cannot hope to achieve a solution in Afghanistan based on their present military strategy.
The US’s main aim in Afghanistan is that, in the future, it does not again become a haven and launching pad for attacks by al-Qaeda and its allies. This should be achievable through a political solution that exploits the differing aims of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and results in the setting up of a loose federal system that includes the Taliban, but ensures that they cannot create a unitary state in which they achieve dominance, and gives other ethnic groups, and other Pashtun leaders, room to establish their own power centres. Even though such a political solution would require the departure of Western military forces, the US, with the help of the ‘Northern Alliance’ provinces, a revitalized Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and its own proximate military power, can ensure that al-Qaeda does not again establish bases in Afghanistan.
Should a political solution not to be possible immediately, the US will have to conduct a holding operation there until Pakistan has been stabilized sufficiently to re-establish control over its border areas, and is in a position to assist in achieving a satisfactory resolution in Afghanistan.
The flawed conceptual legacy left behind by the Bush administration has contaminated the Obama administration’s aims and policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has been compounded by a continuation of the defective planning process of allowing the military too much say in policy-making, so that they not only decide how to fight but also pick the enemy the US will fight. As a result the United States is pursuing a wrong policy in this theatre: fighting the wrong enemy on the wrong battlefield. Unless it realizes this, and makes the necessary corrections soon, it risks losing both Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Islamists.
© F B Ali (May 2009)