Saturday, March 6, 2010

Complexities of conflict

In the last few weeks, the Pakistan Army has been conducting major military operations in Bajaur and Swat, causing widespread death, destruction and suffering; hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced. Despite this, the United States and NATO continue to push Pakistan to ‘do more’.

Heavy reliance on the use of force is the primary American policy for this region. They fail to understand that the Pashtun tribes have to be dealt with different to bring about change that leads to enduring peace and stability. They fail to learn either from British and Soviet experience in the region, or even their own experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are other genuine limitations that prevent us from winning this war at the military level. Clearly, the army has to train a lot more to fight insurgencies; it is trained and prepared to fight conventional wars while the threat in the tribal belt and the NWFP is very different and militants respond asymmetrically.

This is not unique to Pakistan. The Soviets faced huge setbacks fighting the Afghans. The British army, despite its professionalism, was unable to defeat the Irish insurgency or, in the colonial period, the Pashtun uprisings. The Americans’ overwhelming military power has yet to register any significant success in Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, the Americans’ record in Afghanistan is even less impressive in the face of the resurgent and tenacious Taliban.

Moreover, it is not easy for the Pakistan army to fight its own people. There is a significant number of Pashtuns serving in the three services, whose families are being directly affected by this war.

A fundamental question needs to be answered: As Pakistanis are we ready to fight when the enemy is not clearly defined and fights from the shadows? Also, do we have the will power as a nation and as a military to stand up and fight to preserve a value system that our leaders, civilian or military, seldom adhere to? No doubt, the militants in FATA and Swat have no respect for human life, commit atrocities and do not understand the language of peace. However, at the same time, can the state fight a war where casualties suffered from collateral damage reach unacceptable levels?

American incursions into the tribal areas, in violation of our sovereignty, add to the complexity. A war that needs to the support of the people is being undermined by the US’ gross interference.

For several months, the Pentagon, State Department, Congress, American think tanks and the media have been directing criticism and allegations that Pakistan is responsible for the losing war in Afghanistan. Given the media power of the US and its global influence, it is no wonder that the most of the world readily accepts such allegations as facts. Further, Pakistan’s record, especially its support to militants for advancing foreign policy objectives or matters related to nuclear proliferation, has not been helpful in improving its image.

However, a dispassionate analysis of the realities that are fuelling the insurgency will show that US expansion of the zone of conflict into the tribal belt would have the opposite effect to the professed goals. There is no doubt that support for the Taliban insurgency from elements within Pakistan is a factor, but it is minimal, and is the effect, not the cause. It is somewhat similar to the Vietnamese grossing over to Cambodia to ward off US aggression.

But if the Americans think that shifting the onus on Pakistan and using that as a pretext to conduct direct military operations in its territory is going to win the war, they are mistaken. Such moves will inflame the whole region, with dire consequences for the security not just of the region but the world.

The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is the driving force for Pashtun tribes in FATA to cross the border. When they find US troops operating in their area, the motivation will be even greater and the borders will become meaningless. Even the tribes and groups opposed to the Taliban will join the resistance; Pan-Islamic forces that have been gaining ground in Pakistan will get a further boost. The prevailing impression that America is Pakistan’s enemy will be reinforced, marginalising moderate and secular voices. And the battle for the soul of Pakistan will tilt heavily in favour of the obscurantists.

Repeated accusations by the US that safe havens in Pakistan are being used as training camps and bases for the Taliban and Al Qaeda need to be scrutinised. In Afghanistan’s southern provinces, the Karzai government hardly exercises any control; it would not be very difficult for the Taliban to operate

The US keeps a close watch over Pakistan’s tribal belt by flying predator drones and satellite reconnaissance. Currently, Pakistan relies on human intelligence and communication eavesdropping, which are slow and not very effecting against fleeting targets. The Pentagon and the CIA should share relevant intelligence or provide predators/UAVs to Pakistan. If it is lack of trust that is preventing cooperation, then there is a need to address the reasons for it. If there are elements within our intelligence establishment that are supporting the militants, as the US alleges, then the best way to confront the problem is at the government level, especially with a civilian government keen to cooperate in the war on terror.

There are other issues that need serious consideration as well. Insurgency in Afghanistan is on the rise in several provinces that do not share any border with Pakistan, belying the assumption that it is attributable to the ISI’s complicity. Ironically, critical factors — especially poppy cultivation, rise of warlords and absence of state structures — that are fuelling insurgency in Afghanistan seldom figure in the discourse on the war on terror.

The US should cease looking at Pakistan through Afghanistan’s prism. For the US to pursue a policy that destabilises a nuclear-armed country of nearly 170 million to supposedly stabilise Afghanistan, which has rarely been a functional state, is simply beyond comprehension.

What the US and Pakistan need to understand is that as of now, inadvertently or otherwise, both have become a part of the problem and only a joint effort will move us toward a solution. Any unilateral strategy will be disastrous for all parties.

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