The emerging crisis

September 22, 2011


ON Sept 13, the Taliban attacked the US embassy, the Nato headquarters and other buildings in the green zone in Kabul, while suicide bombers struck police buildings in the city.

The attack lasted for 20 hours and was an embarrassment for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). Earlier on Aug 19, there was a suicide attack on the British Council office in Kabul that killed at least 16 people and injured 22 others. The Taliban claimed that the attack was meant to coincide with the 92nd anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Britain.

Before that, on July 21, the US and Isaf forces launched a raid on the Sar Hawzah district in Paktika that led to the death of 80 militants associated with the Haqqani network. According to Stratfor, an independent intelligence unit, most of those killed in this raid were Pakhtuns from Pakistan.

Apparently, the security incidents that are currently occurring in Afghanistan reflect multiple goals that the Isaf and the Taliban, a generic term encompassing disparate groups including the Haqqani network, are following.

The recent assassination of the head of the Afghan high peace council Burhanuddin Rabbani foreshadows a civil war in Afghanistan rather than peace by 2015.

Following the Sept 13 attack, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter and Adm Mullen warned Pakistan to stop assisting the Haqqani network that the US held responsible for the attacks in Kabul. They also urged Pakistan to launch an operation against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan.

Concealed within these warnings was an implicit threat of retaliation by the US; if that happened it would constitute an act of war and could end Pakistan's cooperation with the US. The likely reaction by Pakistan against such an act would be halting transit facilities provided to the US and responsible for supplying 80 per cent of goods to US forces fighting in Afghanistan.

Gen Kayani while participating in the Nato military chief's conference in Seville recently said that Pakistan will only consider actions based on its national interest. This meant that Pakistan will not follow US direction in the matter.

He later had a two-hour meeting with Adm Mullen on bilateral military relations between the two reluctant allies. It is clear that while the US was upping the ante, Pakistan was playing it down. What is the reason for this disquiet?

On an average there are at least 20 to 22 night raids daily by Special Forces inside Afghanistan; understandably there are high collateral deaths because of the frequency of raids.

Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Afghanistan, has publicly said that the Taliban has to be bled before they are reconciled to talks. Obviously, the ambassador is out of sync with European thinking that wants genuine reconciliation to bring peace. In fact, peace is now off the table with the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan.

Hard-liners in the US have taken control of policy in Afghanistan that conflicts with President Obama's desire to exit as early as possible; apparently the war is not ending soon and it is going to get bloodier. It will make Obama's dream of a well-ordered withdrawal impractical.

From the Pakistani perspective, it appears that there are not many choices available to the military in Fata or in Afghanistan. There was a time in 2004, when Pakistan and the US were working closely through a joint intelligence cell operating from GHQ. This once led to the arrest of Siraj Haqqani with 14 of his close associates by the political authorities in Miramshah, North Waziristan. However, the situation is now different with a change of strategy by the Pakistan military.

Prior to 2010, the military believed in confronting the militants kinetically, interspersed with tactical peace deals to buy time and space. Over time, the army has changed its tactics in handling the insurgents.

The prevailing approach is to place the army in strategic locations in Waziristan, the Kohat-Hangu-Orakzai-Kurram axis and in Peshawar and Malakand. This show of force is for use in small security operations. Secondly, the presence of the army is more often used for creating community resistance to the militants through developing nodes by the introduction of armed lashkars.

The Haqqani group has always indicated that their fight is against the foreign occupation of Afghanistan and not against Pakistan or its army. On some occasions, the group has also provided support to the army against militants in Waziristan or Kurram. In such a situation, the Haqqani group is thus an asset helping the Pakistani government in security maintenance.

There is also an external aspect to the Haqqani group that is connected to international politics related to the endgame in Afghanistan. One of the fears expressed by Pakistani security planners is that India could begin to have greater influence in Afghanistan after US withdrawal.

Therefore, it has made sense to Pakistani planners to have stoppers available to prevent that from occurring. Thus the play of India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan induces Pakistan to treat the Haqqanis as a strategic asset. One could criticise this relationship, but then security planners are hardheaded and do not give up their useful assets without quid pro quo.

Considering all these factors, one finds that the US exit strategy in Afghanistan is unclear and is perhaps suffering from a lack of leadership that is necessary at this stage. Secondly, the increase of night raids by Special Forces in Afghanistan will result in retaliatory raids by the militants on Kabul.

Under such inauspicious circumstances, Pakistan would rather retain its assets than sacrifice them. Thus its relationship with the US is unlikely to improve.

The writer is the chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.