Just in the last two days, conflicting messages have emanated from members of the top echelon of the Pentagon regarding the role of Pakistan in the fight against terror. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised the Pakistan’s recent military triumphs while Admiral Mike Mullen implied that the US will retaliate against that country in response to future attacks on American citizens.
The same blend of praise and blame was heard from the United Kingdom, where three Brits of Pakistani extraction have been found guilty of plotting to kill as many as 10,000 people. All three have traveled to Pakistan in the recent past, including the tribal areas.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan is rapidly taking a turn for the worse, spreading panic in the European capitals. Previously tranquil northern Afghanistan is becoming increasingly violent as a result of spreading Taliban influence. Last week, NATO air strikes in Kunduz resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, of which the majority are believed to be civilians.
Furthermore, Karzai and his allies, the notorious warlords, will likely remain in power as a result of the turbulent and confusing Afghan Election. This despite widespread criticism of Karzai as an ineffective leader, with his government often blamed not only for corruption but for drug trafficking.
With this context in mind, how does one interpret the contradictory statements heard from western capitals?
As stated above, not only is the Afghan conflict spreading – civilian causalities are mounting. The declared objective of the Coalition’s new Afghan strategy, to reduce civilian casualties, has not yet been realized. As pointed out in an earlier POLITACT piece, attacks on NATO’s northern supply routes are conceivable at this juncture of the war. The media has been publishing numerous reports that Al-Qaeda Central has moved to Pakistan, with the clear implication that the focus of attention should shift from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Some experts are claiming that the NATO air strikes in Kunduz could very well be the turning point in the Afghan conflict. The difference of perception between how the US and Europe see the Afghan war has now reached an alarming level. So that while there are reports that as a result of General Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment of the Afghan war more troops are going to be requested, the Europeans have called for a UN Conference to discuss turning the security authority over to the Afghans themselves.
As the 8th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, public opinion regarding the conflict has clearly changed in Germany, France and the US. Aware of this, the American and British governments sent the conflicting messages: first, to remind their publics that the threat still exists, especially from terrorist in Pakistan; second, to warn that country if it lets down its guard because of recent western praise it could face unwelcome consequences; and third, to divert attention from the failure of coalition forces in Afghanistan to achieve their objectives during the last eight years.
President Obama has a number of tough decisions to make in the coming days, the first of which is whether he is willing to take ownership of the war and work to provide all the required resources needed for success. It is critical that the President not act under any of the following misconceptions about the ground reality:
- Putting more resources and troops on the ground will change the outcome.
The history of the region suggests otherwise: the more troops one sends to the Pushtun areas, the worse the situation gets. There is a growing sentiment in the region that this war is against Pushtuns and this could stir nationalist feeling. At this stage, reconciliation with moderates is the only viable way to isolate the extremists and Al-Qaeda.
- Al-Qaeda Central has moved to Pakistan and so that’s where the focus should be.
An effective policy should aim at eliminating the causes of the support for extremism, which requires taking a long-term approach and working with the local governments to eradicate safe havens by offering incentives and benefits over the long run.
- If the US and the Coalition forces leave the region, a vacuum will be created which can only be filled by the extremists and Al-Qaeda, meaning a return to pre-911 conditions.
This perception has been created and strengthened by those elements in South Asia which need Western economic and military support to remain in power and others who want to promote their own interests in the region. In fact, nothing of the sort will happen; these governments will wholeheartedly fight for their own survival once they clearly understand what’s at stake. The United States can effectively support these governments in the fight against extremists, as has been shown recently in the case of Pakistan.
- A new strategy in Afghanistan should aim to quickly increase the number of Afghan troops and work with the local government to gain wider support.
The composition of the Afghan Security Forces is going to be the most important factor in their effectiveness. At this juncture, there is just no getting around the fact that 1), the moderate Taliban will have to be negotiated with and 2), a broad timetable for the withdrawal of the Coalition forces from the region will have to be announced.
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