The Status Of US AfPak Strategy: Who Has The Initiative? Part 1



To understand the current predicament the US-Pakistan relations is in, the evolution of US AfPak strategy since President Obama took office needs to be reviewed. The death of Osama bin Laden and the elimination of other top Al Qaeda leaders have given a boost to the more upbeat version of the situation in Afghanistan. However, there exists a competing more dismal storyline on the prevailing ground circumstances. The recent attacks against American targets in Afghanistan have given prominence to the direr interpretations of the state of affairs. A perquisite to solving the Afghan quagmire is a realistic assessment of who has the initiative.

The Pakistanis have not kept it secret that they consider the Haqqani group a significant player in a post-US Afghanistan, and have engaged with leaders of the group as stakeholders in the Afghan reconciliation process. They have claimed to have repeatedly told the US not to misconstrue this contact as undermining the US efforts in Afghanistan. On the other hand, US is threatening to declare the group a terrorist organization, that would exclude it from any negotiated settlement.

The dynamics surrounding the role of Haqqanis has to be understood in the larger struggle that is unfolding in the AfPak region. In a series of articles, PoliTact would be covering the following key themes around the Afghan Conflict:

1. The competing narratives on who has the initiative in Afghanistan.
2. The status of political reconciliation with Taliban and peace process.
3. The significance of ‘Taliban Offensive’ unfolding in Afghanistan.
4. The status of US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Taliban strategies on the desired future outcome.
5. The options of US and Pakistan regarding the Haqqani network.
6. The global geopolitical context and US-Islamic world relations.


Obama’s Assessment of US Afghan Policy

When President Obama came in to office he initiated an exhausting evaluation of the US Afghan policy, which later adopted the acronym of AfPak. The late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was appointed to lead the office, whose mandate was to originally included India, but that part was dropped due to heavy lobbying from the country. At the time it was assumed that the new policy would break from the Bush era focus on a primarily kinetic approach, and tilt more toward a diplomatic surge and a search for political solutions based on a regional emphasis. Obama’s assessment went through a metamorphosis of sorts and ended up being an evaluation of the entire US foreign policy.

Reappraisal of policy involved the critical questions of what is at stake for America in Afghanistan? Dealing satisfactorily with this inquiry required evaluating US interests internationally, understanding how they are related and then prioritizing in terms of the prevailing global recession. For example:

• Whether it is more important to confront the nuclear threat posed by Iran and North Korea or to focus on stabilizing Afghanistan;
• Which is more pressing – preventing destabilization in Afghanistan or Pakistan;
• Whether or not countering Chinese and Russian ambitions is more important than fighting extremism;
• Whether environmental developments like global warming are more of a threat than international rivalries;
• Whether progress towards a two-state solution in the Middle East or stopping the spread of extremism is more critical;
• Whether the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq will be helpful or hurtful to US interests;
• How to keep NATO intact and effective in the future.

Then came the task of identifying the real challenges in Afghanistan:

• Is the coalition mustering a counter-insurgency (COIN) or counter-terrorist campaign in the region? Each requires a different approach.
• If safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan are eliminated, will that change the situation in Afghanistan and if so, at what cost?
• Is the goal to eradicate Al Qaeda only or the Taliban and other Jihadist groups (LeT) in the region as well?
• What can and cannot be achieved in the short and long-term by altering the regional balance of power?

The New US AfPak Strategy

The strategy that finally emerged represented the competing institutional influences that shape American foreign policy. Obama had to balance domestic economic realities with the perception of appearing weak on national security threats, a leverage he did not want to offer to the Republican Party. Additionally, he also wanted to fulfill his campaign promises of pulling troops out of Iraq and focusing on Afghanistan. Specifically, the new strategy opted for sending 30,000 more troops while setting a timeline for an exit to begin by July 2011.

At the time of the unveiling of the new strategy, PoliTact noted in December 2009:

“One could say that the President is attempting a phased approach designed to bring about a dramatic change in the region. More specifically his policy involves the following:

• Give the military what it needs now, setting the stage for an adjustment, if necessary; if this policy doesn’t work, the administration will change course.
• Sending more troops is largely symbolic. The real emphasis focuses on diplomacy to persuade Pakistan and Afghanistan to get serious about extremists. This will help US develop a position of strength for any subsequent peace negotiations. However, which group of extremists to target other than Al Qaeda (the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, the Kashmiri Jihadists, or the Haqqani Network) is an issue which complicates the position of the various stakeholders, and which also fails to fully take into account the role of regional tussles involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and India, play in the Afghan war.”

Strategic Dialogue

The new US policy was followed-up with a process of strategic dialogue with Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. What transpired from this dialogue with India was a civil nuclear deal, the groundwork for which was laid during the Clinton administration. On the other hand, Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package ran into controversy because of provisions that many in Pakistan thought compromised its sovereignty. The Raymond Davis incident in Lahore further validated Pakistan’s apprehensions. At the same time, Mumbai attacks and dealings associated with David Hadley, increased cooperation between US and India against groups such as LeT based in Pakistan. Thus the feeling of mistrust between US and Pakistan continued to increase, with both actors blaming each other for playing a double game. Operation Osama and his discovery in Abbottabad, gave further evidence of how deeply each party distrusts the other, while claiming to be strategic partners.

The Status of Military and Political Strategies

Tensions between political and military strategies for the Afghan conflict have continued and have also bedeviled the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan relations. The focus of the reconciliation process was initially to isolate Al-Qaeda from its supporting network amid questions of how this can best be achieved: through the use of force or a political approach. The civilian causalities caused by the drone attacks in FATA and nightly Special Forces raids in Afghanistan have been a constant source of irritation.

From the American perspective, the recent high profile attacks in Kabul and the assassination of senior political personalities, such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, creates the damning perception that the Af-Pak strategy has failed to secure the country and lead it towards a credible peace process. In other words, the conditions are not ripe for the US to exit, or to leave the country in the hands of trained Afghan Security Forces. The reason for this, according to US and NATO, is that Pakistan has been unsuccessful in eliminating safe havens in FATA and in North Waziristan, and has supported groups such as Haqqani network. On the other hand, Pakistan disagrees and claims that as long as Afghanistan remains unstable, FATA will follow suit, and it cannot perpetually conduct military operations while creating many new enemies.

Nonetheless, the death of Osama bin Laden and other head honchos recently, including Anwal al-Awlaki in Yemen, are the examples of success stories. Former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal recently commented that President Obama should have used Osama’s death as an opportunity. Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) early this month, he stated, “It would have been the perfect moment to declare victory and withdraw from Afghanistan … and not to continue with this endless fight.”

There are two main characteristics of the Afghan landscape at this point,

First, although the capabilities of Al Qaeda as an organization have been seriously downgraded, it seems to have had little to no impact on the ground reality in Afghanistan. As a consequence, US would likely go after Taliban groups considered close to Al Qaeda, such as the Haqqani network. However, this can broaden the scope of the conflict and can also cause mission creep. While a broad international mandate has existed to act against Al Qaeda as a terrorist group, such unanimity does not exist when it comes to different Taliban factions. US and NATO would like to build such a consensus with the help of Afghanistan and India. However, that would mean the end of the peace process for a considerable time, and time is what US does not have.

The major frustration between Pakistan and the US at this stage boils down to whether the Afghan conflict will require a predominantly military or a political solution, and Pakistan’s role in either scenario. As the nascent political reconciliation began to unfold, Pakistan and Afghanistan have complained that they were being kept out of the loop. When the two countries appeared to work out things bilaterally, the concern on the US side rose. Then came the accusation that Pakistan was trying to sabotage the peace talks because it felt it was being short-changed, especially as it relates to Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India.

The country has protested recently that although the US is pushing for political reconciliation in Afghanistan, it wants military operations on Pakistan’s side. The harsh reality remains, whoever has control of the ground reality, has the initiative and would govern how the future of the region is shaped.

The recent events prove that Taliban retain that initiative, and US and coalition forces have been unable to change that. Therefore, pressure on Pakistan would remain the name of the game for some time.

Future Options

In the future, US is likely adopt a mix of the following options. The situation of Middle East would heavily influence the dynamics of these alternatives, especially the Iran-Saudi Arabia and Sunni-Shia tussles, while Turkey may end up playing a more balancing act.

  • Adjust its AfPak Strategy, with more emphasis on political reconciliation.
  • Continue the course with escalation of military action in FATA against Al Qaeda linked groups, while soliciting the support of India and non-Pashtun minorities of Afghanistan.
  • Build international pressure and consensus for punitive military actions and economic sanctions against Pakistan and its interests. 
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