The Tale of Evolving Strategies in AfPak



To understand the way forward in the AfPak region, one would have to first grasp how the situation got to where it is right now. To deal with the intent of different players and the asymmetric nature of the conflict, the tactics and strategies adopted by US and Pakistan have evolved over time. The focus of these strategies has remained on the military dimension of the war, and has only just begun to move towards a political approach, represented by the Istanbul Regional Conference. The political path is likely to be accompanied by its own sets of challenges that are already beginning to emerge.

The Overt War

When the US got involved in Afghanistan after 9/11, Pakistan had to make quick decisions under pressure from the new US doctrine, “either you are with us or against us”. Musharraf was widely criticized for his abrupt about face in parting with the Taliban, which Pakistan had helped create.

For all intents and purposes, Musharraf saw the turn of events as a strategic opportunity to gain credibility for his regime. In the early years of the Afghan conflict, Musharraf used to vehemently deny there were any cross-border attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan. Pakistan’s position at the time was that even if there was cross-border support, it was coming from Afghan Taliban and Afghan refugees based in the country, and not from its intelligence organization, as alleged. On the other hand, Indian and Afghan officials generally blamed ISI for the worsening situation in Afghanistan, and contended that without elimination of safe havens in FATA, situation in Afghanistan could not improve. On the other hand, Pakistan blamed the conditions in Afghanistan for the instability in Pakistan. Moreover, Musharraf laid the “Good Taliban” and “Bad Taliban” classification.

From Pakistan’s perspective, Good Taliban were the Afghan groups that did not attack the state and its armed forces and focused their attention across the border. Today these groups are known as Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura. Bad Taliban were the extremists belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who attacked Pakistani forces and wanted to implement Sharia.

The status of Kashmir related jihadist groups has remained a bone of contention as well, as they increasingly cross-pollinated with Good and Bad Taliban in the tribal areas. The US viewed the role of these groups, such as LeT, differently as compared to Pakistan, especially after the Mumbai attacks in late 2008. The US defined the threat emanating from these different groups based on if they pose a local threat or a regional and a global one, and how closely they affiliate operationally and ideologically with Al Qaeda.

Pakistan also made a crucial strategic distinction in its cooperation with NATO in the fight against extremists; it was forthcoming against Al Qaeda but not so much against the Good Taliban. Most of the military operations the country carried out were against the Bad Taliban. Meanwhile, it also periodically entered in to peace deals with Taliban that eventually collapsed.

As the situation in Afghanistan slowly deteriorated, the US began to question the intent of its ally, and the focus increasingly shifted to safe havens in the tribal areas. Pakistan countered that by stating that it lacked the capability to fight a non-conventional war and its intent should not be doubted. Pakistan requested bolstering of its capacity with modern gadgets and equipment to take on the militants. For example, night vision gear, attack helicopters and capability for Pakistan air force to conduct night missions. Nonetheless, the US began to lose patience with Pakistan and realized that a different approach was needed to deal with the Taliban and Al Qaeda rest and relaxation, training and command centers in FATA.

It was during this time that Musharraf helped establish a critical red line; coalition forces were not allowed to cross the Durand Line and only a limited range was permissible for the hot pursuit scenarios. The controversial tactics of unmanned drones, hot pursuit, and boots on the ground have continued to bedevil ties between US, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tactics used by the coalition forces have not only acted as leverages in getting better cooperation from Pakistan Army, they are also examples of how to counter the asymmetric warfare being waged by the extremists across South and Central Asia, Middle East and Africa.

The Covert War

After the Red Mosque incident in late 2007, events took a turn for the worse and terrorist events spread across Pakistan, severely impacting its economy and the law and order. The argument shifted from acting against safe havens to if the country can, on its own, without foreign assistance, control the extremists responsible for the wave of terror in Pakistan. Being a state possessing nuclear weapons, the country could ill afford the negative publicity and the perception that extremists could take over its nuclear assets. Under these pressures and to manage American anxieties, Pakistan accepted the offer of external assistance. However, this happened far from public knowledge or scrutiny of political leaders. It was during this time that rumors about the presence of Blackwater and Special forces personnel in the country became louder.

As President Obama moved into office, he ordered a comprehensive review of the US AfPak strategy. 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. However, the ground realities and political pressures in Washington did not allow for this shift. What actually transpired from the assessment were a military surge, an exit timeframe and strengthening of the covert strategy against Pakistan. In late 2009 General Petraeus, then the head of CENTOM, signed a secret order, increasing covert operations to counter militants that across borders, and “other” threats across the region. The order authorized Special Operations forces to operate in both allied and hostile nations in the Mideast, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.

It was this covert unilateral approach that led to the Raymond Davis incident in January and the discovery of and elimination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May. The case of Raymond Davis represented a modified ‘boots on ground’ approach, as these operatives were placed inside the country and did not come from across the border. Nonetheless, the red lines defined by Pakistan had been violated. The Raymond incident also exposed that US was trying to establish its own contacts with the Taliban and wanted to bypass Pakistan, as it navigated the political settlement in Afghanistan. Subsequently, Pakistan drastically reduced US covert presence in the country and severely curtailed military cooperation as well.

The elimination of Osama has been followed by an increase in lethal attacks on NATO forces and political personalities in Afghanistan. These strikes have been mainly attributed to the Haqqani network, the Good Taliban. It was the assassination of Afghanistan’s top interlocutor for political reconciliation, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani that profoundly damaged the mainstream perceptions. These assaults demonstrated that despite the troop surge, the Taliban appeared to have retained the initiative, and both the military and political part of the strategy was in trouble. It was these serious setbacks that led Admiral Mullen to declare Haqqani network a “veritable arm” of the ISI and Karzai signing a strategic agreement with India. Additionally, US dropped the Good and Bad Taliban distinction that Pakistan maintains, targeting both, with the possibility of more unilateral actions looming large if the country does not act against the Haqqanis, and the safe havens in North Waziristan.

The Way Forward

Under this mounting US pressure, Pakistan held an All Parties Conference in October, which adopted a shift in policy by moving towards a political settlement with cessation of military operations on its side of the border. While the US has talked about adopting a political reconciliation, the military approach has clearly dominated. The recent visit of Hillary Clinton to Pakistan in October marked another shift in US strategy, the “fight, talk, build” approach. As opposed to keeping it out, this new approach puts Pakistan and ISI in the driving seat and for bringing warring Taliban to the negotiating table. On the other hand, Karzai has also stipulated that his government would no longer talk to Taliban but would instead negotiate with their supporters.
The move towards a political solution is accompanied by its own set of challenges. For example, one of the emerging challenges appears to be if the regional stakeholders should be involved before or after peace has been achieved in Afghanistan. The answer to this question carries direct implications on the US troop withdrawal, especially as the US is also in the process of retrieving its forces from Iraq, and there is growing unease about Iranian resurgence and its nuclear program.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger best described this concern. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on November 1, he told audience, “I have no [objection] in principle of negotiating with the Taliban, but for the purpose of ending the war, it’s the wrong sequence of events. The first negotiation in my view ought to be with surrounding countries.” He also urged the US to reach an agreement before it pulls out it troops from the country. Kissinger also suggested that larger batches of troops should be pulled out at the end of the process, and not the beginning, so as to keep leverage.

Pakistan, on the other hand, maintains that peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the region, is contingent on the reconciliation process within Afghanistan, without which no other effort will bear fruit. From Pakistan’s perspective, there is reason to believe what the US could not get from Pakistan bilaterally, it will try to achieve with a multilateral political process.

Early indications suggest that the road to Bonn and Chicago is not going to be any easier than the military method has been. Although the role of Pakistan remains pivotal, the dynamics resulting from the Arab Spring and the economic woes of the EU and the US are going to play as significant a role. And, it has lately been the BRICS that is imposing its influence on matters of international significance.

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