Before all international actors can work harmoniously against the threat of terrorism, it’s essential they share the same perception of the threat. Perceptions are tied to fears and motives, and discrepancies usually develop between a rich country and the one that is struggling for survival. Within this context, let us examine the various perceptions and perspectives surrounding the Afghan Front of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).
Pakistan’s perspective on the War on Terror has evolved over time. It maintains that as long as Afghanistan remains unstable, the tribal belt (for the most part) and the rest of Pakistan (to a lesser extent) will remain volatile. This stance took time to develop, as initially Musharraf was reluctant to admit that cross-border support was taking place; it’s equally important to recognize that the reality on the ground has shifted gradually as well. In addition, Musharraf took great pains to point out that not all Pushtuns are Taliban. When Pakistan finally acknowledged the some level of cross-border support for the Afghan Taliban, it attributed it to Afghan refugees in Pakistan who sympathize with the Taliban. Not until 2005 was it clearly established that there was a Pakistani Taliban movement, which was aiding the Afghan Taliban.
Afghanistan has reiterated its position that, as long as the cross-border support for Afghan Taliban does not terminate, Afghanistan will not see stability and, as a result, the U.S, will not be able to exit honorably. Afghanistan has made it appear that all the problems in that country are the creation of Pakistan. Furthermore, Afghanistan has repeatedly maintained that most of the operational command for the Taliban and AQ leadership is hiding in Pakistan.
From the American point of view, the perpetrator of 911 and any of its partner organizations must be eliminated; it cannot be given space or opportunity to plan more attacks against the West and the U.S. The United States initially provided an opening to the Afghan Taliban to part with AQ. The Afghan Taliban was an enemy of the U.S. only by association; it never threatened the U.S. or the West. AQ had simply taken advantage of certain Pushtun cultural characteristics: religiosity, a thirst for revenge, and a history of standing up to invaders and oppressors. AQ’s exploitation of Pushtun culture spread, in reach and sophistication, and the Pakistani Taliban was born.
Although the Pakistan government understands the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, it still underestimated the movement’s threat. Public opinion is divided over the threat of these militants to the state of Pakistan, and the leadership of the country’s political, security, and intelligence institutions is undecided.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s archrival India contends that Pakistan has a record of using militant proxies against Indian interests, particularly in Kashmir, and that it has in the past used its influence in Afghanistan to gain strategic depth. Thus, India supports the Afghan stance against Pakistan. Gradually, as it has risen in economic and global stature, India has convinced its new strategic partner, the U.S., that the problem lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. In doing so, India has been able to align its threat perception with that of Afghanistan and to turn the table on Pakistan. India has extended this threat further by linking it to an historical pattern: Most invaders of the subcontinent have come from the northwest, through the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Within the logic of India’s threat perception lies a contradiction: The historical threat of northern invaders holds true for Pakistan as well, and thus supports the view that, as long as Afghanistan is unstable, Pakistan will remain volatile. This lends support to the argument that the tribal belt (FATA) is a natural defense against such northern invasions, as witnessed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 80’s.
Another player in the region is Iran, before 9/11 both Iran and Pakistan fought for influence in Afghanistan through their proxies. Iran also adds the Shiite dimension to the Afghan front and complicates the tumultuous Sunni and Shiite relations in Pakistan. Furthermore, Iran introduces the Shiite and Sunni politics of the Islamic world, the traditional tensions between Arab and Persian civilization, and the Middle Eastern power dynamics; all of this further muddles the Afghan Front. Historically, Iran has enjoyed close relations with India; those are increasingly strained now that India is a strategic partner of the United States. On the other hand, the U.S. remains distrustful of Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, its aspirations for nuclear weapons, and the threat this poses towards Israel. There is one thing in common here: the United States, India, Afghanistan, and Iran all share the same perception of threat from the Taliban.
NATO is another case in point; its membership is increasingly puzzled about the endless and ever-extending mission in Afghanistan and what it can achieve, particularly in view of the global financial crisis, resurgent Russia, and the increasing human toll in Afghanistan. Europeans are nervous and seem to have little appetite for a military expansion beyond Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United States has launched a review of its strategy for Afghanistan and is tilting more towards a regional approach, to include FATA as well. At the same time, U.S. control of the agenda and the conflict in Afghanistan also is being questioned in many powerful capitals of the world. Many NATO countries do not want to be blindly led into bankruptcy following the threat perception of U.S.
The United States has recently recognized that, for it to achieve its aims in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s threat perception must shift from India as the main enemy to internal militants. But the Mumbai attacks and their aftermath have reinvigorated the widely held belief in Pakistan, India remains a primary threat to its existence. At the same time, the Mumbai attacks have revealed to India and, to some extent, to the U.S, that the threat is emanating from non-state actors within Pakistan. After all, both countries gained independence from Britain on the premise that Hindus and Muslims cannot get along, and that bitter history continues to muddle the vision of both countries. Therein lies the challenge for the U.S.: If Pakistan and India consider each other a threat, how can the U.S. change the threat perceptions of these countries to reflect its own?
In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, India’s perspective has differed from that of the U.S. and NATO; it has squarely blamed the Pakistani state for providing support to the non-state actors, the ones active in Kashmir, and it has attempted to link Pakistan to the wider threat of terrorism posed by AQ. So, if the Pakistan-based Taliban are creating problems in Afghanistan, Kashmiri militants are creating havoc in India, with state support. Furthermore, there is an emerging threat perception as far as the U.S. is concerned regarding the growing nexus between all non-state actors: AQ, Afghan- and Pakistan-based Taliban, other anti-coalition militias in Afghanistan (the Haqqani Network and Hizb-e-Islami etc.) and Kashmir-related groups. This is complicating the Afghan front and has dangerous ramifications for the region and beyond.
The pivotal question is: Where does all of this end? Is there a real threat? Or is it all a matter of properly aligning the perception of threat with that of a major power or cajoling parties to fear a threat equally? The war can keep spreading and with it the number of people and countries threatened by it. The existence of a threat and availability of resources go hand in hand and, at the same time, create an opportunity for others to exploit threats and fears.
Last time around, it was the Americans and the Soviets competing in Afghanistan. Before that it was the British and the Russian empires; regional players and local groups were merely tools in these larger conflicts. When the stakes of global powers are minimal, regional players act out of their own interests. Witness the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988.
Preventing the Afghan front from spreading deeper into Pakistan, Iran, and India will involve a global approach, not just regional one. It will require an understanding the fact that something more than misalignment of threat perception is causing the Afghan front and FATA to simmer. It’s the divergence of strategic interests among the various parties with stakes in the conflict and its aftermath; this has become intertwined with the bigger campaign against terror. This is why the conflict probably should go by its historic name of Great Game. If India is trying to link its problems with Pakistan to the global menace of Al-Qaeda, Pakistan is attaching its efforts towards the war on terror to the resolution of the Kashmir issue, while Iran and the Saudis fight over Shiite and Sunni influence in this region and the Middle East.
Tackling this misalignment of threat perceptions entails dealing with the fears, interests, and insecurities of each party. Sidelining AQ requires rectifying the injustices of the world that provide fuel for the extremists. It must be understood that a lack of economic opportunities in these areas escalates the recruitment for such extreme movements and ideologies and creates openings for others to settle old scores.
All of this must happen before history and time plays out, and the interests and will of major parties drift due to lack of resources or another significant world event causes realignment in the threat perception of key parties involved. It’s the injustices of the world that are a threat to all of humanity.
The countries involved must rise beyond their selfish national interests and move toward mutual benefits and interests; this would require a fundamental change in how they look at the world and its threats. At its best, this is what globalization is supposed to do: to create interdependencies, in which all parties benefit from mutual trade. Thus there is an even greater urgency to bring those left-behind parties on par with the rest quickly, so these forgotten and struggling parties can have a stake in the system as well. This could mean that major players in this conflict will have to let go of some of their interests so others can get a share a stake in protecting the system from any perceived threats.
This is easier said than done, since the revivalists would like to reclaim old glories that existing and emerging powers often cannot allow. The importance of history in understanding these conflicts and carving future solutions cannot be overstated perceptions and misperceptions will only be short-lived.