Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dealing with distrust

Enhanced cooperation between Pakistan and the United States is crucial to success in the war on terror. This is only possible if the genuine security concerns and critical national interests of both parties are addressed

The missile and drone strikes in the tribal belt and the recent limited ground operation in South Waziristan by US forces sparked severe criticism and anger across the country. Even moderate and liberal forces joined hands with the conservative and religious parties in condemning the act and asking the government to take retaliatory measures by reviewing Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror.

The government will surely not go that far, but it will find it difficult to pacify the charged sentiments of the public, and of several influential groups including the strategic community.

There are several reasons why the United States is stepping up its operations inside Pakistani territory.

First, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is on the rise and the US attributes that to the support they are receiving from militants located in FATA.

Second, the centre of gravity of the war on terror has shifted from Iraq to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Moreover, before the advent of winter, NATO-ISAF forces want to inflict maximum damage on the Taliban, including their hideouts in the tribal belt.

Third, with the US presidential election less than two months away, the Bush administration would like to demonstrate that the Republicans are tough on issues of national security. President Bush would also like to improve his legacy if possible by taking out Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri before his term expires.

Fourth, the Pentagon and the CIA believe that Pakistan’s military and its intelligence community, especially the ISI, are pursuing a dual policy of fighting Al Qaeda but being soft and even supportive of the Taliban.

Fifth, the Bush administration is taking advantage of the interregnum as the civilian government settles down. Washington also feels that the government, apart from making noise, is not in a position to take any retaliatory measures against the coalition, such as suspension of logistics and supplies, strikes in response or a review of the alliance.

The US, however, fails to realise the serious, dire consequences this policy would have on Pakistan and on regional stability, and the serious complications that would arise in US-Pakistan relations.

Pakistan’s coalition government is fully supportive of the war on terror, and is trying to widen support for this effort. Soon, it plans to initiate a debate in parliament to develop national consensus on the matter. Meanwhile, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani have reiterated in public forums that this is Pakistan’s war and have taken a firm stance against the militants.

The government is also trying to dispel the prevailing perception that this is America’s war that Pakistan is being forced to fight under pressure, and understands that galvanising public support would be an essential tool for putting pressure on and eventually isolating the militants.

In the event that the US continues to unilaterally intervene and launch land and air operations inside Pakistani territory, it would be very difficult for the government to make the people own this policy and get their support. In fact, it will further heighten the prevalent anti-American sentiment and confirm the belief that the US is deliberately destabilising a democratic government.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban will welcome American intervention, as their primary aim is to create chaotic conditions to enhance their influence and hold in the tribal belt and the NWFP. Al Qaeda will also shift focus to the Pak-Afghan border as the US withdraws from Iraq.

The most problematic issue, however, will arise when the Taliban and Al Qaeda engage American forces on Pakistani soil, giving the impression that they are the ones resisting foreign aggression. In these circumstances, it will be very difficult for the Pakistani military to continue counterinsurgency operations against the militants.

A better alternative for the US would be to cooperate closely on intelligence and operational matters with Pakistan. If the US has misgivings about certain elements of the ISI or other intelligence agencies, these should be addressed jointly, given that Chief of Army Staff General Kayani and the present civilian government are committed to fighting terrorism and militancy in the tribal areas.

Obtaining the support of the tribes and working through them would be the best approach. Capture of militant leaders from FATA, who are virtual warlords of their areas, can be very useful as they are directly and indirectly supporting Al Qaeda, and have considerable information about the location and movement of its top leadership.

The Al Qaeda-Taliban combine has not renounced its resolve to attack the United States. The desire that safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal belt do not turn out to be breeding grounds for such attacks, from the American standpoint, is therefore understandable. But is killing Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda figures synonymous with protecting the United States and its forces deployed in Afghanistan?

I would argue that a better approach is to make the top leadership ineffective and inconsequential. Clearly, eliminating bin Laden, Zawahiri or second-tier leaders would inflict a temporary psychological setback, but it would in turn transform them into martyrs and a great source of motivation for their followers.

The reality is that during the last seven years, Al Qaeda has not been under the direct control of bin Laden; he has merely been a source of inspiration. But this inspirational nexus exists irrespective of whether bin Laden lives or dies, and killing him may further intensify these feelings.

A far better alternative would be to allow Pakistan to regain control over the tribal belt and parts of the NWFP that have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, instead of pursuing the singular goal of killing the militants and their leadership, which will not necessarily result in control over the tribal belt. On the contrary, it would widen the area of conflict with serious consequences for the stability and integrity of Pakistan and the region. An equally significant outcome would be that the security threat to the US will increase, not decrease.

Instead, the US should address the needs of the Pashtun people that are being ignored on matters such as security, development and political power. Regrettably, the Bush administration is looking for short-term gains and quick results that are not attainable through direct action in FATA. A long-term perspective is crucial to winning this war.

Enhanced cooperation between Pakistan and the United States is crucial to success in the war on terror. This is only possible if the genuine security concerns and critical national interests of both parties are addressed.

Pakistan is unlikely to completely give up the jihadi tool against India unless the Kashmir dispute finds a satisfactory resolution. Washington pays scant attention to Pakistan’s security and strategic concerns either with respect to India or Afghanistan, giving rise to the duality in Pakistani policy looked at with such distrust by the US. Pakistan’s new government will find it relatively easier to shut down jihadi networks and dismantle them in due course based on the future of the Kashmir issue. Given that, India has a major responsibility in stabilising the region.

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